Youth who grow up in a rural community face unique challenges as they think about and head toward college. Rural communities have far more adults with high school diplomas and a few years of community college than adults who have completed 4-year degrees or graduate degrees. The 2000 Census reported that 19.5 % of rural adults hold a bachelor's degree or higher as compared to 28.8 % of adults in urban areas. In our rapidly changing economy, a college education is increasingly important to economic security. Fortunately, recent studies have shown that rural youth of today are aspiring to postsecondary education including 4-year degrees, meaning many will be first generation college students. While a fair amount of attention has been paid to minority first generation college students, and a small number of researchers are examining the experiences of first generation white students, little attention is being paid to the unique group of rural first generation students who are currently entering our community colleges and universities.

The Rural Pathway to Higher Education is Unique

In general, rural youth grow up in small communities with small schools. They feel intimately at home in a place where they know many people, where there is little traffic and even less crime, and where their schools provide ample opportunity for individual attention.
As first generation students, these youth are encountering new experiences that are unfamiliar to their parents and community members. From taking SAT and ACT entrance exams through college graduation, these youth are treading on new ground without familiar supports. Students may also feel an additional pressure to succeed from families and communities who have invested heavily in their education.
  • College often means a large campus with thousands of students and a new sense of anonymity.
  • Colleges are often located closer to urban areas and in places with dramatically different lifestyles.
  • Moving quite far from home can be difficult for rural youth who feel obligated to help their family or contribute to farm work.  
  • Rural youth are also moving to a place where fewer strangers can be trusted. Parents worry whether their kids will be careful with their wallets and laptops, will learn where it is and is not safe at night, and will find good friends.
  • Once at college, rural youth meet and share classes with students who grew up in the suburbs and cities.
  • Finding common ground can be hard. Stereotypes of rural people as "bumpkins," "hillbillies," or "cowboys" may present themselves, forcing these youth to either hide their roots or prove themselves in and out of the classroom.
  • Rural youth generally have less access to advanced coursework, especially calculus and advanced placement classes, leaving them with more college classes to take in order to complete their degrees.

The Special Case of Community College

Many rural youth choose to begin their college education at a community college. Community colleges are more affordable and have smaller campuses and class sizes. Here, youth can adjust to campus life, easily access their advisors and instructors, and live closer to home than if they had chosen a 4-year school. Most community colleges, however, do not have campus housing. These campuses were designed for students living at home or students returning to their education later in life. Unlike a college with dorms and meal plans where students just show up with clothes and computers, youth attending a community college are making an array of adult decisions including renting apartments, furnishing those apartments, dealing with utilities, and finding transportation to and from campus. These youth may need to work harder to find friends, as they are not living in a dorm with other students taking similar classes. Community colleges may be the perfect choice for some youth, but may derail other youth who are not ready to engage in the required adult decisions.

What You Can Do As A Parent

  • Parents are crucial for helping first generation students succeed in college. Students need support navigating the path to and through their college education.
  • Take your child to visit college campuses. Even short visits provide youth with a sense of belonging in a college setting.
  • If you feel unsure about guiding your own child's process, talk to his or her school about finding someone who can.
  • If you are more familiar with the test-taking and application process, offer to help other first generation students.
  • Prepare your student to be away from home by spending time with them in larger towns and cities. Any practice your student has in places similar to where he or she plans to attend college will help him or her feel more comfortable once there.
  • Assist your child as much as possible with any adult decisions he or she needs to make. Even if you are not supporting your child financially, assistance with financial aid forms, apartment leases, and how to manage utility bills can help ease the transition.

What You Can Do As A Teacher or Rural School Administrator

  • Provide as many opportunities as possible for campus visits. These should include sporting events and state club meetings such as 4-H or FFA. Special content area camps like computer or engineering camps, as well as sports camps, are also important.
  • Encourage faculty to make college campuses a stop on field trips or travel for sports.
  • Mentor students through the test-taking and application process. Take advantage of the strong teacher-student relationships and guide students through the process. Identify students who will be first generation college students and make sure they have all the information they need to apply to schools.
  • Bring current college students to campus. Colleges generally have long breaks so take advantage of alumni who are currently attending college and invite them to share their experiences and advice.
  • Be proactive about getting college admissions counselors from a variety of colleges and universities to visit your school. Encourage students to hear their presentations and ask questions.
  • Work with college admissions counselors to facilitate campus visits for your students.
  • Encourage groups of students and parents to visit college campuses together, allowing youth to envision their future away from home.


Howley, C. W. (2005). Remote possibilities: Rural children's out of school activities and educational aspirations. Unpublished Dissertation, Temple University.

See: Kraft, C. L. (1991) What makes a successful Black student on a predominantly White campus. American Educational Research Journal, 28(2), 423-443.; Stanton-Salazar, R. D., Dornbusch, S. M. (1995) Social capital and the reproduction of inequality: Information networks among Mexican-origin high school students. Sociology of Education, 68(2), 116-135.

Moschetti, R., & Hudley, C. (2008). Measuring Social Capital Among First-Generation and Non-First-Generation, Working-Class, White Males. Journal of College Admission(198), 25-30.

Devora Shamah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at Oregon State University. Her research interests focus on rural youth and schools. Specifically she is examining how growing up in a rural place shapes the educational and occupational aspirations of youth along with their sense of purpose. Before returning to pursue her doctorate she taught at-risk middle school youth. Ms. Shamah holds a Bachelors degree in Communications from UC-San Diego and a Masters in Teaching from the University of Chicago. She holds an American Fellowship from the American Association of University Women.