Seeing “rural” as a differentiated space, by Andrew Koricich

Creative Commons image by Flickr user TumblingRun


“On average, in the twenty-first century, rural communities differ more from each other than they do from urban areas” (Flora & Flora 2008, 6).  For decades education researchers have studied how geographic location, and more specifically population size and density, influence a variety of educational indicators including student performance, school governance, and postsecondary access.  Studies that focus on (or control for) urbanicity tend to use rural/urban or metropolitan/non-metropolitan categories.  A monolithic category for rurality may provide some degree of parsimony and can help to simplify complex models, but such a category fails to acknowledge that there may be no such thing as a “typical” rural community (Cousins, 1983). If this is the case, then using a singular grouping for rural places may not be the best way to understand educational phenomena in these communities.

A number of scholars stress that there are substantive differences between rural communities (for example Paasch & Swaim, 1998; Whitener, 2006), yet differentiation at the community level is largely missing from the literature.  By studying mining communities as similar to farming communities or retirement communities the same as communities with high unemployment, researchers may be missing critical differences between rural places.  Identifying these differences may allow for targeted policies by all levels of government as well as educational institutions.

An ecological systems framework may be a useful theoretical approach.  The framework emphasizes that human behavior can be influenced by multiple contexts, such as families, schools, and communities (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).  Further, he emphasizes the importance of establishing ecologically valid measures to ensure that what researchers are studying accurately reflects the experience of the subject.  This includes not only subjective measures, but objective ones as well.  While originally applied to the field of psychology, the principles of an ecological framework can also be useful when studying educational pathways and outcomes.  In fact, this approach has been used to study the postsecondary enrollment patterns of rural youth (Demi, Coleman-Jensen, 2010), and an ecological systems approach may be particularly useful when studying the variation within urbanicity groups.

…the more important aim is to encourage educational researchers (as well as those from other disciplines) to reconsider the monolithic categories of urbanicity and focus on the heterogeneity within these categories.

If there is distinct heterogeneity among rural communities, it is crucial to identify ways in which to operationalize these differences.  It would be impossible to list all of the ways communities could be grouped, but one existing typology contains four different ways to study “intra-rural heterogeneity” and can be useful for academic and policy researchers alike.  The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (“USDA-ERS”) has produced several iterations of county typologies that classify counties on multiple dimensions.  The most recent version includes four classification schemes.  Counties across the nation are classified by local industry structure and economic indicators, as well as measures for urban influence and the “degree of rurality” (USDA-ERS, 2005).  Whereas communities are often classified primarily on population size or density, the four USDA-ERS typologies highlight non-traditional, if not more informative, traits.  Understanding whether a community has faced 40 years of poverty, is primarily a mining community, or is heavily influenced by the economy of a nearby city is more explanatory of education phenomena than measures of population size or density alone.

What’s more, these typologies have utility to more than just researchers of rural places.  Because these USDA-ERS typologies classify all 3,141 counties in the United States, the data can also be useful to researchers of metropolitan places.  It could be argued that metropolitan counties, too, could be differentiated along each of the aforementioned characteristics and that such differentiation could result in some interesting and enlightening research.  Combined with other data sets, these classifications can be employed in disciplines beyond education and could offer valuable insights into legal, economic, and public health concerns, as well.

While this piece has focused specifically on the typologies produced by the USDA-ERS, the more important aim is to encourage educational researchers (as well as those from other disciplines) to reconsider the monolithic categories of urbanicity and focus on the heterogeneity within these categories.  There are myriad ways in which rural, urban, and suburban places can be differentiated and analyzed, and hopefully policymakers and academics will seek creative and innovative ways to combine data sets to answer increasingly complex questions.  This will better reflect the sociopolitical realities of communities and could ultimately lead to a better understanding of educational pathways and outcomes for students across the country.


Bronfenbrenner, Urie. The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979

Cousins, Jack. Rural school communities in Colorado. Report No. ED239800. U.S. Department of Education:Washington, DC, 198

Demi, Mary Ann, Alisha Coleman-Jensen, and Anastasia R. Snyder. “The rural context and post-secondary school enrollment: An ecological systems approach.” Journal of Research in Rural Education 25, no. 7 (2010): 1-26

Flora, Cornelia B. and Jan L. Flora. Rural communities: Legacy and change (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008.

Paasch, Kathleen M., and Paul L. Swaim. “Rural high school completion.” In Rural education and training in the new economy: The myth of the rural skills gap, edited by Robert M. Gibbs, Paul L. Swaim, & Ruy Teixeira, 41-60. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1998.

USDA-ERS. “Measuring rurality: 2004 county typology codes.” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 2005. Retrieved October 2011, from

Whitener, Leslie A. “Policy implications of rural demographic change.” In Population change and rural society, edited by William A. Kandel & David. L. Brown, 431-445. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2006.

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