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Research Agenda

Building an understanding of the experiences of rural learners and the postsecondary institutions that serve them is a foundational step in our efforts to remove systemic barriers that can stand in the way of their success.

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This research agenda focuses on generating knowledge to help practitioners and policymakers remove systemic barriers for rural learners from low-income backgrounds. It explores four critical focus areas to help build field understanding of the many factors influencing rural learner success in postsecondary education and entry to the workforce.


The Rural Institution as a Catalyst for Mobility and Economic Growth

Rural postsecondary institutions often serve as a local community’s largest employer, cultural and community hub and workforce development pipeline, among their many roles. They are core to rural community vitality and can play an important role in drawing attention, people and resources to rural areas. Relative to postsecondary institutions in non-rural areas, rural postsecondary institutions often play an outsized role in their communities. The questions in this research focus area aim to explore the extent to which that role connects to rural learner success.

  1. What are the various roles that rural postsecondary institutions play in their communities or regions? What relationship does the role rural postsecondary institutions play have with rural learner success as measured by persistence, completion and job placement?

  2. In what ways do rural postsecondary institutions build social and cultural capital in their local area? How do rural postsecondary institutions’ social and cultural capital in their communities or regions affect rural learner persistence, completion and job placement?

  3. How do employers perceive the value of credentials or certificates from rural postsecondary institutions? What is the association, if any, between employers’ perceptions and rates of rural postsecondary institution attendance and rural learner persistence, completion and job placement?

  4. How do rural postsecondary institutions work with local partners to provide opportunities that contribute to learner persistence, completion and job placement? What are the key benefits of these partnerships to rural postsecondary institutions, partner organizations and learners?

Capacities for Effective Service and Innovation at Rural Institutions

In response to rapidly changing learner needs, technologies, workforce demands and funding and regulatory environments, postsecondary education institutions are being called upon to innovate — finding new and sustainable ways of increasing student success and meeting the needs of core stakeholder groups. Human, data and strategic planning and execution capacities are among the key institutional needs to innovate and deliver effective service in today’s changing landscape. The research questions in this focus area aim to explore rural institutional capacities, how to build those capacities and the extent to which those capacities affect rural learner persistence, completion and job placement.

  1. How do rural postsecondary institutions develop, recruit and retain the talent and expertise required to effectively respond to changing program and learner needs?

  2. How do rural postsecondary institutions build their capacity for collecting and using data? What is the association between data capacity at rural postsecondary institutions and learner persistence, completion and job placement?

  3. How do capacities in areas like institutional research, academic research and grant writing affect rural postsecondary institutions’ ability to implement changes to improve rural learner persistence, completion and job placement?

  4. How do rural institutions create the conditions to engage in long-term strategic and financial planning in support of their student success priorities?

The Rural Student Learning Journey

Rural contexts frequently have different learner needs, institutional capacities and community assets than the large, non-rural institutions that often drive postsecondary education innovation and research on best practices. Research in this focus area aims to explore what academic and non-academic practices and policies help to improve rural learner persistence, completion and job placement in rural contexts.

  1. What types of first-year experiences, programs and supports (e.g., tailored orientations, student success courses, corequisite remediation) have the greatest impacts on rural learner persistence?

  2. What are the effects of a large-scale redesign of the learner experience (e.g., implementation of math pathways or integrated advising) on rural learner persistence, completion and job placement?

  3. Are early momentum metrics effective indicators of student success for rural learners? What other early indicators predict rural learners’ postsecondary progress and completion, as well as labor market success?

  4. How do rural postsecondary institutions modify high-impact practices in teaching and learning and integrated student supports to fit local contexts and institutional resources?

The Value of Postsecondary Education for Rural Learners

The value of postsecondary education has been increasingly tied to economic opportunity and wage gains for graduates. This narrative shapes how postsecondary institutions attract, educate and graduate learners. Yet, we are challenged to define and measure private and public value and to deliver equitable value to all learners. Research in this focus area aims to contribute to an ongoing conversation about postsecondary value by exploring value in rural contexts, including the interplay of value with identity and learner persistence and completion.

  1. How do rural learners think about and define the value of their postsecondary education, and how does that change over time and after completion of their credential?

  2. What programs, interventions or conditions at rural postsecondary institutions are associated with different perceptions of the value of postsecondary education from the perspective of rural learners?

  3. Does postsecondary education position rural learners to pursue the professional, personal and civic opportunities they value? What skills, knowledge, networks and relationships — gained during college — do recent graduates identify as important to their current work, lives and communities?

  4. What is the value of rural postsecondary credentials to rural learners in terms of broadened economic or job opportunities?


The development of this research agenda was facilitated by Sova in close partnership with Ascendium. It is field informed and collaboratively developed with participants all across the nation.


Devon Brenner
Mississippi State University

Soo-yong Byun
The Pennsylvania State University

Kelty Garbee
Texas Rural Funders

Tyler Hallmark
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Andrew Koricich
Appalachian State University

Gerri Maxwell
Texas A&M University- Corpus Christi

Darris Means
University of Pittsburgh

Leslie Neal
Montcalm Community College

Mara C. Tieken
Bates College


José Cabrales
American Association of State Colleges & Universities

Elizabeth Cox Brand
Oregon Student Success Center

Seth Carter
Colby Community College

Valerie Lundy-Wagner
California Community Colleges

Nadrea Njoku

Alyssa Ratledge

Laura Rendón
University of Texas at San Antonio

David Sanders
American Indian College Fund

Marion Terenzio
SUNY Cobleskill

Dustin Weeden
State Higher Education Executive Officers Association

For more information

The full research agenda includes more on its development and important considerations for researching rural postsecondary education.

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