Another look at rural-nonrural differences in students’ educational aspirations

Another look at rural-nonrural differences in students’ educational aspirations

Journal of Research in Rural Education, Winter, 1993, Vol. 9, No.3, 170-178

Emil J. Haller, Cornell University

Sarah J. Virkler, University of Buffalo


This 1993 journal article explored the aspirations of rural and nonrural young people in the USA. It concluded that socio economic status can explain some of the difference in aspirations across rural and nonrural young people. Exposure to available jobs also has a significant impact. The authors suggest greater exposure to new and different professions, as well as enhanced careers guidance, to allow young people to explore more careers.


Research suggests that rural youth have lower educational aspirations than their nonrural counterparts. This discrepancy has important implications for educational policy and for achieving equality of educational opportunity, and it has led some to propose that action is necessary to reduce the rural-nonrural variation. However, while the existence of an aspiration difference seems clear, neither its magnitude nor the reason for its existence is similarly transparent. Before undertaking remedial actions, it is well to ascertain the nature of whatever discrepancy exists. That is the purpose of this paper. This paper finds that the rural-nonrural difference in adolescents’ educational aspirations is quite small, and that about half of this discrepancy can be attributed to the well-established divergence in socioeconomic status (SES) between rural and nonrural families. The analyses suggest that most, possibly all, of the remaining difference derives from the different occupational aspirations of rural and nonrural youth. The authors conclude that eliminating the small difference in rural-nonrural educational aspirations is likely to be unachievable. The discrepancy’s roots lie in patterns of family dynamics that are largely beyond the reach of educators. If, however, the aim is simply to reduce the discrepancy, this might be accomplished by raising the occupational aspirations of rural youth. However, that strategy has its own problems, most notably that it is likely to exacerbate the migration of talented young people from rural areas.


Aspirations matter for several reasons. From an individual perspective, they represent one of the more crucial determinants of social mobility. Where one ends up in the social hierarchy is significantly influenced by their aspirations for education from a young age and the occupational ramifications of fulfilling those desires

It follows, then, that a significant disparity between the aspirations of certain groups, in this case rural and nonrural, could be a matter of serious concern. At the very least it would imply that there is something about rural life that imposes an additional handicap on the occupational attainments of children of the rural poor, a handicap that makes their rise out of poverty even more difficult than it is for children of the nonrural lower class.

There is considerable evidence that such a disparity exists. Numerous investigators have noted that the educational aspirations of rural youth lag behind those of their nonrural counterparts. This discrepancy has prompted some to call for measures to solve the problem of low aspirations among rural adolescents. The paper then examines the possibility that differences in rural nonrural educational aspirations are a consequence of differences in occupational aspirations as well as family SES.

Aspirations develop, at least in part, from exposure to the various occupations available in a community: Adolescents aspire to what they know or can imagine. Rural areas tend to have more narrowly specialized economies than urban places. That is, a higher (though declining) proportion of the industries in rural communities are agricultural or are concerned with refining raw materials. Thus, rural students may tend to aspire disproportionately to the agricultural, service, and manual occupations that are associated with those industries-that is, to occupations that require relatively little education. This tendency will be exacerbated to the extent that parents’ occupations influence students’ aspirations. On the other hand, nonrural students, the authors suggest, are more often exposed to managerial and technical occupations, lines of work that require higher levels of schooling. This structural argument suggests that labour markets in rural and nonrural communities differ, that these markets influence individuals’ occupational aspirations over and above the effects of family SES, and that occupational objectives shape educational goals. Hence, rural students will aspire to less education than will their nonrural peers.

If the major determinant of any discrepancy is simply that rural students lack exposure to a broad range of occupations, schools might effectively intervene. For example, occupational education programs and strong career counselling efforts could raise the occupational sights of rural youth and thereby their educational aspirations.

To investigate the magnitude and causes of the rural-nonrural difference in educational aspirations, this study re-examines the same data set as Cobb et al. (1989) and Hansen and Mcintire (1989): High School and Beyond (HSB).

The data suggest that rural students have much the same occupational aspirations as their nonrural counterparts, except that, as predicted, fewer aspire to professional and technical jobs (50% vs. 59%). Conversely, rural students are somewhat more likely to say they expect to hold a lower white collar or blue-collar job at age 30 (34% vs. 29%).

Rural students will be less familiar with professional and technical occupations than nonrural pupils, and therefore less likely to aspire to them. There is one obvious exception to this generalization: the schoolteacher. Presumably all adolescents are equally familiar with that profession. Rural students are slightly less likely to aspire to all occupations in the professional and technical category than their nonrural peers, with the single exception of schoolteacher. The authors infer that if occupational expectations influence educational goals, then the educational aspirations of rural students will be further depressed, over and above the effects of family SES, as a consequence of the nature of rural labour markets.

There is only a small difference in the educational aspirations of rural and nonrural youth, approximately half of which is due to the lower SES of rural families, and most of the remainder is a consequence of adolescents’ tendency to aspire less often to the highest-level professional jobs -jobs that are relatively uncommon in rural regions.

The analyses suggest that the rural labour market is as important as family SES as a determinant of the rural-nonrural aspiration discrepancy. Consequently, effective intervention programs should target directly students’ occupational aspirations. For example, if rural students are simply unaware of many occupational opportunities that exist in nonrural areas, school districts might encourage higher educational aspirations by acquainting pupils with diverse lines of professional and technical occupations and their educational requirements. Good vocational counselling may be all that is required.


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