Blog: College Access & Success

Rural Student Success Resources: Data and Insights From NCAN's Benchmarking Project

Thursday, July 18, 2019  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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My last post focusing on college access and success in rural communities examined some of the stats and insights about rural education from "No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural Education in America." Today’s post focuses on some of NCAN’s own data on students in rural communities from the Benchmarking Project.

Quick refresher: The Benchmarking Project is a collaboration between NCAN and its members that examines the postsecondary outcomes of students served by college access and success programs. Across five rounds of data collection covering more than half a million students, the project found that students served by NCAN members enrolled and completed at rates exceeding their peers from low-income high schools. Additionally, these member-served students enroll at rates matching or exceeding students from most kinds of high schools across the country. Despite these successes, member-served students still experience significant completion gaps overall compared to national outcomes.

Data from round 5 of the Benchmarking Project, which includes students from the high school classes of 2011 and 2016, offers a sense of the characteristics of both the programs serving students and the students they served:

  • Across 88,290 students in round 5 of the project with real data on high school locale, 16% (about 14,000) were from rural high schools, compared to 32% suburban and 53% urban.

  • Unsurprisingly, White students comprised a much larger proportion of students in rural communities in the Benchmarking sample. White students were 31% of rural high schools, compared to 16% each in urban and suburban schools. There were fewer Black students from rural high schools (9%) compared to suburban (14%) and urban (24%) high schools. Hispanic students were also less numerous, comprising 39% of rural high school students, compared to 55% and 43% from suburban and urban high schools, respectively.

  • Students from rural high schools from the class of 2016 were about as likely to first enroll in two- and four-year institutions as their suburban and urban peers.

  • Rural and suburban students were about as likely to be first-generation (57%), but urban students were more likely to be first-generation (64%).

  • Of the 60 programs that reported high school locale data, 21 (35%) had rural students, compared to 22 (37%) and 54 (90%) that reported having suburban and urban students. Note that the figures do not sum to 100% because programs can contain students from more than one locale.

  • Considering programs by participation requirements (academic, financial, both academic and financial, neither academic nor financial), the rural-serving programs were most likely to have financial requirements only, and least likely to have academic and financial requirements. Suburban programs were more likely to have academic requirements only, while urban programs were less likely to do so.

The Benchmarking Project also allows us to examine students’ outcomes overall.

  • Overall, member-served students from the class of 2016 had a first fall enrollment rate of 69%. By locale, rural students had the lowest first fall enrollment rate at 65%, compared to urban students (67%) and suburban students (74%). This suggests there may be an access problem among rural students served by NCAN member programs relative to other locales served by members. However, worth noting is that in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s most recent High School Benchmarks Report, first fall enrollment rates for high school graduates from the class of 2011 were equal for students from urban and rural high schools (63%) and just trailed suburban high schools (67%), so the NCAN outcomes are in-line with a reliable national benchmark.

  • First fall enrollers from the class of 2011 had a 52% six-year completion rate overall. Students from rural high schools had the highest completion rate by locale (55%) followed by suburban (54%) and urban students (50%).

The next two charts consider six-year completion of first fall enrollers from the class of 2011 by race/ethnicity and high school locale; the second chart also considers gender.




Overall, students from rural high schools fare quite well. Six-year completion rates for rural Black and Hispanic students exceed those from other locales and the overall NCAN benchmark. Outcomes for rural White students match those of suburban White students and exceed the NCAN benchmark. Similarly, rural American Indian students’ outcomes are in-line with those of other locales and the overall benchmark. While rural Asian students’ six-year completion rates lag, this is a very small proportion of the rural student population in NCAN’s sample.



Adding in gender along with locale and race/ethnicity, students from rural high schools in the Benchmarking Project sample still fare quite well. This is especially true for Black and Hispanic females from rural high schools, who complete at rates 4 and 5 percentage points higher, respectively, than the NCAN benchmark for all Black and Hispanic females and exceeding students from both urban and suburban high schools. White male students from rural high schools also fare well by also exceeding the NCAN benchmark by 5 percentage points. Black and Hispanic males fare similarly across the locale types. American Indian males from rural high schools appear to complete at relatively higher rates than this group overall or students from urban or suburban high schools, but sample sizes are small here, so interpret with caution.

Overall, the data suggest that students from rural high schools enroll less frequently than students from other locales. But once they matriculate, students from rural high schools appear to complete within six years about as frequently as their suburban and urban peers. This bears more examination.

This series’ next installment will examine some of the college access challenges in rural communities, including those identified through NCAN’s experience in the Rural Student Success Initiative. That post will also discuss some available resources and other projects focusing on rural students and communities.

(Photo by Sveta Fedarava on Unsplash)