Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Rural and Urban High School Dropout Rates: Are They Different?

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

Rural and Urban High School Dropout Rates: Are They Different?

Article excerpt

This study estimates the high school dropout rate in rural and urban areas, the determinants of dropping out, and whether the differences in graduation rates have changed over time. We use geocoded data from two nationally representative panel household surveys (NLSY 97 and NLSY 79) and a novel methodology that corrects for biases in graduation rates (Heckman and La Fontaine, 2010). Our findings suggest that high school graduation rates are very similar across the rural-urban continuum in the early 2000s, and they are lower by 3 percentage points compared to the 1980s, with the decline experienced uniformly across the rural-urban continuum. We find that gender, family assets, the presence of biological parents, and maternal attributes appear to be the main determinants of graduation and influence graduation in a similar way across both urban and rural areas. For years, the research literature has looked at various issues from a perspective of determining how rural and urban areas are different with regard to high school dropout rates. We suggest that once family attributes are accounted for differences in rural and urban areas are small and narrowing.

It is well known that remaining in school at least through high school graduation is vital to staying out of low-wage America. In addition to lower wages, students who do not finish high school are more likely to be unemployed, to end up in prison, to need public assistance, and to die at a younger age (Olson, 2006). Yet, many continue to leave school before graduation. Dropping out of high school thus has social costs reflected in lost tax revenue and increased expenditures for health care, corrections, food and cash assistance, subsidized housing, and public assistance, making drop-out prevention a priority for policy.

Several studies have found rural-urban differences on both high school dropout rates and the likely causes of dropping out (e.g., Paasch & Swaim, 1995; Pallas, 1987; McCaul, 1988; Strange, 2011). They have found that the major determinants of dropping out are related to individual and family characteristics, industry structure (e.g., McGranahan, 2004), likelihood of getting a job and school discipline (McCaul, 1988), as well as community and school risk factors (Paasch & Swaim, 1995). Given that the isolation by distance, technology, transportation, or communication between rural and urban areas may have been substantially reduced in recent years, it is important to examine rural-urban dropout rates and their determinants. Rural America is experiencing rapid changes that are blurring rural-urban spatial and social boundaries (Lichter & Brown, 2011). In addition, some research has suggested that spatial distinctions are less important than aspatial distinctions (e.g., race or class) within spatial categories (Beggs, Haines, & Hurlbert, 1996; Hamilton, 2006). As urban areas expand and take in previously distant rural areas, and as transportation and communications systems make the space between urban and rural areas less pervasive, it is useful to examine empirically the extent to which the process of human capital formation is structurally different in rural and urban areas. This may particularly be the case in terms of secondary education; should we focus on place, or on family and race? For example, Lichter and Brown (2011) argued that the "the blurring of rural-urban spatial boundaries has been accompanied by the hardening of aspatial boundaries (e.g. race and class)" (p. 584). This study asks if the determinants of success in high school are substantially different across urban and a variety of rural places with recent, nationally representative data.

High school graduation rate is "a barometer of the health of American society and the skill level of its future workforce" (Heckam & LaFontaine, 2010, p. 244). Studies on high school graduation rates using nationally representative data have produced conflicting results even on such a basic and necessary statistic as the graduation rate itself. …

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