STEM Pathways of Rural and Small-Town Students: Opportunities to Learn, Aspirations, Preparation, and College Enrollment

STEM Pathways of Rural and Small-Town Students: Opportunities to Learn, Aspirations, Preparation, and College Enrollment

Policy Brief #24-2February 2024


The underrepresentation of rural and small-town students in the increasingly important field of STEM education can be attributed to limited opportunities to learn and a lack of accessible STEM pathways, hindering their participation and success in STEM careers.

In view of the growing number of jobs in the United States that require greater science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) knowledge, it is vital to recruit and retain qualified students into these fields from a variety of backgrounds. Yet, little is known about STEM participation among students from geographically diverse backgrounds, especially those from rural and small towns. Compared to city and suburban students, rural and small-town students may face barriers like reduced access to fast internet, employment possibilities, and opportunities to learn (OTL) STEM subjects. Examples of reduced STEM OTL include inadequate access to advanced math coursework and career advising support related to STEM. In particular, we need to know more about how STEM OTL is connected to STEM career goals and postsecondary STEM degree enrollment for rural and small-town students.

Figure 1
Description of measures used to explore differences in STEM pathways 

Description of measures used to explore differences in STEM pathways

A new analysis shines some light on differences in interest in STEM careers, access to in-and out-of-school STEM OTL, and postsecondary STEM enrollment. Researchers analyzed data from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09), which includes a nationally representative sample of students that were followed from 9th grade to when they were in postsecondary education and the labor market. Results show significant differences in STEM pathways by geographic location, especially when rural and small-town high school students are compared to their suburban counterparts. Rural and small-town students have different STEM learning environments and opportunities than their city and suburban peers. Figure 1 describes the measures used in the study. At the start of high school, rural and suburban students have similar levels of interest in STEM careers, but by the end of the 11th grade rural students report less interest. The opposite is true for small-town students, who show less interest in STEM careers than suburban peers at the start of high school but have similar levels of interest towards the end of high school. Rural and small-town students also appear to be less prepared in STEM at the beginning and near the completion of high school compared to their suburban peers. Rural and small-town high school students additionally have substantially fewer STEM OTL related to courses offered, teaching capacity, and STEM extracurricular programming compared to suburban peers. The differences in career aspirations between rural and suburban students as well as the differences in math achievement between rural/small-town and suburban students towards the end of high school are partially explained by demographic and pre-high school STEM OTL factors. Yet, while high school factors contribute to differences in career aspiration, they do not contribute to math performance. Discrepancies in STEM degree enrollment are, however, mainly explained by individuals’ demographic attributes and a few pre-college assessments of career ambitions and academic preparation.

Since STEM career aspirations of participants decrease from 9th grade to 11th grade, future research should consider STEM career aspirations as a dynamic concept that changes over time and varies among individuals. By examining the evolving nature of STEM career aspirations, researchers can gain a better understanding of the differences in STEM educational and career trajectories, enabling more effective monitoring and intervention strategies to support rural and small-town students in pursuing STEM fields. Moreover, future research should seek to identify more barriers in accessing in-school and out-of-school OTL. In terms of policy, the passing of the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, with a focus on rural STEM education, showcases the relevance of addressing these issues. The analysis suggests that interventions should focus on students' motivational beliefs, academic preparation and consider demographic factors to bridge the gaps in postsecondary STEM degree enrollment. It also highlights the importance of subject-specific programs and support structures tailored to the needs of rural and small-town students, such as increasing access to advanced math courses in rural schools and advanced science courses in small-town schools.

Furthermore, efforts to broaden STEM participation in these areas should start early, targeting elementary and middle school students, as pre-high school factors largely influenced outcomes later in life. By implementing such policies and initiatives, it is possible to improve equity and access to STEM education for students in rural and small-town communities.

This brief is based on a manuscript published as: Saw, G. K., & Agger, C. A. (2021). STEM pathways of rural and small-town students: Opportunities to learn, aspirations, preparation, and college enrollment. Educational Researcher, 50(9), 595-606.


Guan K. Saw is an Associate Professor in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Charlotte A. Agger is an Assistant Professor in the Counseling & Educational Psychology department with an appointment in Human Development at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Edited by: Rabbiya Shahid, Center for Evaluation and Education Policy