Rural Students Self-Definitions and Characterizations of Rurality | Ardoin & Koon

written by: Sonja Ardoin & Kendall Koon

There is no single, agreed upon definition of rural in the field of educational research (Kettler et al., 2016; Thomas et al., 2011), nor is there a consensus in educational practice or U.S. government policymaking and documentation (Le Tourneau, 2017). While quantitative metrics such as geographic locale classification metrics (e.g., USDA Economic Research Service rural and urban continuum codes) are often thought to be more objective than those that include self-declaration or identification, these alone do not fully capture social experiences and cultural perspectives of rural people and places (Gillon, 2017; Wendling et al., 2019). These ambiguous and sometimes conflicting definitions of rural can lead to unintended consequences during research comparisons, policy formation, and implementation of both research and policy for educational, governmental, medical, and nonprofit agencies and organizations (Dunstan et al., 2021; Gillon, 2017; West et al., 2010). For this reason, rural is often designated as a “know it when you see it” concept (Flora et al., 2018; Isserman, 2005), which over time has led to the development of qualitative characteristics about rural people and communities (Kettler et al., 2016).

Quantitative population metrics such as size and density are commonly used to distinguish urban, rural, and in between zones (e.g., suburban). In the process of this classification, rural can be seen as a deficit to urban and only defined in terms of what it is not (Ratcliffe et al., 2016; Gillon, 2017). Counties are often the smallest subset of population data that are widely available, and the variation and diversity in size or density within counties is not fully represented in existing metrics (Dunstan et al., 2021).

For example, the rural parts of an urban county cannot be differentiated by many governmental classification systems (Wendling et al., 2019). U.S. Census data collection occurring each decade also allows for large changes in communities without proper reclassification along the way (Kettler et al., 2016). Isserman (2005) referred to this phenomenon as the “county trap” which leads to misleading results such as the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 findings that more than half of U.S. rural populations live in metro or micropolitan areas.

Taking a more detailed look at the U.S. Census Bureau criteria for rurality shows that urban areas are defined using population density metrics and overall population while rural areas are defined as whatever is non-allocated as an urbanized area or urban cluster (Ratcliffe et al., 2016). The Office Management and Budget uses a separate set of terminology and defines counties as metropolitan, micropolitan, or neither. Both the U.S. Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget use population and population density metrics to label counties, though the cutoffs vary between the levels.

Considering the limitations and, often, deficit-based assumptions of these quantitative metrics, some educational researchers are calling for the use of more multidimensional, socially constructed, and self-identified definitions of rurality (Dunstan et al., 2021; Hawley et al., 2016). This study sought to contribute to that definitional expansion, inviting rural students themselves to name what rural is and how they characterized the rural places they called home.


This qualitative study utilized a constructivist paradigm and phenomenological approach to explore and describe rural students’ lived experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Saldaña & Omasta, 2018). Phenomenology invites the researcher to center participants’ perspectives by describing the commonalities between their individual experiences and how they interpret those experiences (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Patton, 2015), getting to “essences and essentials to determine what something ‘is’ or ‘means’” (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018, p. 151). The central question for this study was: What is rurality to rural students? We chose eight participants utilizing criterion-based sampling (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Merriam, 2009; Mertens, 2015), focusing on students who self-identified as rural and who were enrolled in a regional, rural-serving (Koricich et al., 2022), public, four-year institution in a predominantly rural southeastern state. We recruited students via email through university channels.

Data collection for the study included an initial survey, to gather information about the rural areas where participants grew up as well as their self-identified demographics and identities, and one-hour long semi-structured interviews conducted via Zoom. The interview covered a variety of topics related to rural students’ experiences, with the questions related to this particular study focusing on how the participants defined and characterized rurality and the rural areas where they grew up as well as any value they found in being from a rural place.

Data analysis began with identifying significant statements related to how participants defined and characterized rurality. These statements were then grouped into broader meaning clusters or themes and finally into detailed descriptions of how students defined the phenomenon of rurality (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Patton, 2015). To ensure trustworthiness of this study, researchers engaged in interview processes that achieved data saturation, each independently coded data, and then collectively reviewed their analysis to ensure that coding and themes were well aligned with the data (Creswell & Poth, 2018; Krathwohl, 2009; Patton, 2015).

While the study provides insight on how rural students define their lived experiences of the phenomenon of rurality, in comparison to how the government and researchers define it, the study was limited to one institution and seven of the eight participants identified as white. This racial demographic is reflective of both the enrollment on the campus and the population of the part of the state where the study took place; however, audiences should be mindful that rural students are not a white monolith, and that rural Students of Color may have different ways of defining and characterizing rurality. As such, audiences should consider how the findings transfer to their own contexts.


Rural students defined and characterized rurality and the rural areas where they grew up in three primary ways: by the prevalence of nature/land, by proximity and access to stores, and by the close-knit nature of the community. Each of these themes is described.

Prevalence of Nature/Land

Perhaps unsurprisingly, rural students describe how the areas where they grew up featured open land and different aspects of nature. They viewed this as both an asset of rurality and a limitation related to “having things around.” Jason illustrated this concept:

For me there wasn’t much around, just trees and trees and trees, cow pastures … I often lived right in the woods. I guess the nature part of it is nice, being around a lot of trees and stuff, and I walked through the woods a lot as a kid. That was nice.

Sandra noted the sights of farms “every five minutes down the road”, and Marissa commented that “there’s not very many things that bring people into that town other than landscape, the mountains.” In general, the eight participants named the prevalence of nature and land as something they appreciated about rural areas and used to define what rural meant to them.

Proximity/Access to Stores

 To have open land and pristine nature often meant that rural students were from places that were somewhat remote, creating distance from resources and services like stores. The eight participants defined this in both quantitative ways, such as the number of miles from something, and qualitative ways, such as naming specific stores that were not present in the rural community. Alice described: “That’s what rural is to me, being very in the middle of nowhere. You’ve got to kind of drive to get somewhere, [like] 30 minutes [to] the nearest grocery store.” Sarah made a similar statement, who offered: “To go to a Walmart you had to drive 30 minutes or to go shopping you had to drive an hour and 30 minutes.” Marissa and Olaf also mentioned proximity to Walmart as a defining aspect of rurality. Jason was more general in his explanation, simply stating: “I wasn’t even close to a town with shops or anything.”

Alice also noted that other people were not familiar with her rural community unless she oriented it with proximity to another, more urban place in the state. She illustrated:

Because we’re 40 minutes away from [the state capital], so that’s the biggest major city that we have that we’re close to, and so people don’t really know where my area is unless I say, ‘Well, it’s 30 minutes from so and so.’

Having to continuously position their rural communities to urbanicity was unsettling for some participants; however, a few of the rural students acknowledged that moving to a new place to attend college did reinforce the distance and limited access to stores that they experienced in their rural hometowns. Jason chronicled his experience:

Honestly, even [this college town], which is a small rural town, even this feels like a city to me, because there’s so much here compared to where I’m from. There’s shops. I can take a bus. I couldn’t take a bus back home.

The eight participants saw proximity and access to certain things, namely stores, as a component of how they experienced and defined rurality.

Close-Knit Community

Finally, rural students’ characterized rurality through the social aspect of being a close-knit community. Participants framed this not only as “everyone knowing everyone” (Olaf, Sandra), but also as the ability to make connections, receive help, and feel seen and known. Raylan shared that, for him, “rural, it’s the people that make it.” Sandra commented on the “chill vibe” of rural people and communities. For Alice, it was the networking and connecting that illustrated the close-knit nature of rurality; she illustrated:

There is a very tiny knit community and it’s very easy to find connections because either your grandmother knows somebody who knows somebody, or they know something that could help you out with this and somebody could hook you up with that. That’s how a lot of business gets done. A lot of job opportunities get offered. My mom is part of that, so she hears something and she points people to people. It’s just a whole lot of connection that happens. I was always really, really grateful for that because everyone knew something that could help me out.

Olaf mentioned family dynamics as a component to rural areas being close-knit communities; he reflected on how “being able to have a cookout every Sunday with grandparents, aunts, your family” created a better connection for those living in rural areas. Marissa also noted how the connection points could lead to feeling seen, known, and safe; she recounted:

You walk into a store and everybody knows who you are and everybody knows your name and your family and the values in rural areas. Not a lot of people lock their doors, the little bit of feeling of safety that you get in the smaller [rural] areas.

Many of the students believed growing up in rural areas provided them with the foundation of knowing how to build relationships and make friends. Raylan contrasted this foundation with what he perceived about urban communities: “Whenever you go to bigger cities, there’s not that tight knit sense of community [as compared] to back home where you know everybody, which is a good and bad thing sometimes.” Sarah concurred with this stance, explaining: “It’s almost like you have closer connections to people that maybe you wouldn’t if there were so many more people around you. You’re able to have close relationships and learn how to create close relationships.” The eight participants believed rurality was defined by the close-knit nature of and connections within rural communities.

Discussion and Implications

When invited to describe what rurality is, the three characteristics that participants collectively named—prevalence of nature/land, proximity and access to stores, and close-knit communities—affirm prior findings of educational and sociological research (Gillon, 2017; Thomas et al., 2011). Rural students’ characterizations affirm Gillon’s (2017) position that “the construction of rural identity is intimately tied to the ways in which the dominant culture has defined rural people and places” (p. 20), which is often framed through deficiency. However, rural students leaned toward more qualitative and sociocultural characteristics and markers focused on locality, rather than quantitative metrics (e.g., population, zip code) at the county or national level. Showcasing the social construction of rurality, these findings reinforce the rural sociological concept that “something is rural if we define it as rural” (Flora et al., 2018; Thomas et al., 2011, p. 26).

Rural students’ definitions and characterizations of rurality should be important to educational researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who seek to represent, serve, and support rural college students. If we discount rural students’ own conceptualizations and sociocultural definitions of their home communities, we risk failures in “accurately assessing and understanding the issues rural individuals face … and effectively fund[ing] and support[ing] rural people and communities” (Dunstan et al., 2021, p. 61). In short, we patronize rural students and assume knowledge superiority over their own lived experiences. It is critical that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners utilize more nuanced and complex rural definitions—including sociocultural and self-identified definitions—as well as clearly define how they are using rural in policies, programs, and research studies so comparisons can be appropriately made or avoided (Dunstan et al., 2021; Gillon, 2017; Hawley et al., 2016; West et al., 2010). Further, we should invite students to self-identify as rural on applications (e.g., admissions, scholarship), for programs focused on rurality, and as part of research studies. Extending rural definitions can shift what and who are identified as rural and aid institutions and organizations in serving all who identify as rural students.

Reflection Questions

  • What are your assumptions and beliefs about people who come from rural places? Do those align with how rural students define rurality for themselves?
  • How can we support rural students in identifying the assets they hold from their rural backgrounds?
  • What are ways that campus programs and policies can recognize rurality and support rural students’ access, belonging, and success?


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About the Authors:

Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. (she/her) is a learner, educator, facilitator, and author. Proud of her rural hometown of Vidrine, Louisiana, her working-class, Cajun roots, and her first-generation college student to PhD journey, Sonja holds degrees from LSU, Florida State, and NC State. She considers herself a scholar-practitioner of higher education; she served as an administrator for 10 years before shifting to the faculty in 2015. She is currently an Associate Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Clemson University. Sonja studies social class identity, college access and success for rural and first-generation college students, student and women’s leadership, and career preparation and pathways in higher education and student affairs. Learn more about Sonja’s work at

Kendall Koon (he/him) is an alumnus of the master’s in school counseling program at Clemson University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Sonja Ardoin, [email protected].