Rural Higher Education Initiative


Rural higher education has historically been neglected by the research community. There has been little evidence produced to inform the field of “what works” in rural colleges, what different sets of concerns rural students and their families face, or whether nationally recognized best practices are relevant for rural institutions. Homegrown, locally developed interventions, designed to help rural students succeed, have been largely overlooked by researchers. Adaptations of evidence-driven interventions have not been studied in rural locations.

Here are the facts: rural higher education is perennially under-resourced and making do with less than institutions in other locations. Degree attainment rates in rural areas are consistently lower than in urban and suburban parts of the same states. Understanding the successes and challenges in rural higher education is vital for improving educational outcomes and reducing poverty in these areas. Rural communities have unique strengths and need unique solutions. Rural college students — and potential students — should be considered part of the equity agenda for higher education researchers.  

MDRC is developing a Rural Higher Education Initiative and seeks partners to join us in creating a research agenda to answer the open questions confronting students and higher education institutions in rural settings. We will learn from each other in a true partnership that generates policy-relevant, practitioner-focused findings and disseminates those findings in friendly, usable formats.

The initiative’s early products, produced with the Rural Matters Podcast and Ascendium Education Group, offer lessons from our work with colleges and nonprofits across the country. They are available for free under the Publications and Resources tab.

For more information about the initiative, contact Alyssa Ratledge at [email protected]

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

No one knows better the realities of operating rural institutions than teachers, colleges, and community leaders in those communities. MDRC is looking to make its Rural Higher Education Initiative a true researcher-practitioner partnership in which we develop together the research agenda, fundraising structure, and study plan. MDRC has a long history of building evidence in many areas of postsecondary education, as well as providing technical assistance to strengthen programs, by building a research agenda together with partners and synchronizing with local partners’ needs.

Some outstanding questions in the field include:  

  • What are successful rural colleges doing to meet local needs?
  • Do proven-effective strategies from the literature, such as comprehensive programs, have the same effects in rural institutions?
  • What systemic barriers to success do rural students experience, and how are they similar to or different from those for urban and suburban students?
  • What role can higher education play in helping transition historically single-industry communities to support current  labor force needs?
  • How are whole-family or whole-community strategies used in rural areas?

We are eager to identify the questions most relevant to leaders in rural communities. If you represent a rural or small-town college, higher education intermediary, foundation, community organization, or other rural stakeholder, we want to elevate your voice in developing a rural-focused learning agenda. 

We understand that rural higher education is not monolithic. Different areas of the country have different needs. To ensure that the Rural Higher Education Initiative serves the heterogeneous needs of rural regions, we welcome partners from rural and small-town colleges nationwide.