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College students who grew up in rural areas face about 60% more debt than those from urban or suburban areas, according to a recent study from The Ohio State University. 

The study, titled “Student Debt and Geographic Disadvantage: Disparities by Rural, Suburban, and Urban Background,” was published in Rural Sociology. 

The author of the study, Alec P. Rhodes, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at The Ohio State University and a research associate at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, used national data on 4,781 college-goers ages 24-30 surveyed between 2005 to 2013. 

“The rural-nonrural student debt gap is larger than the gap between women and men and about 25% as large as the Black-white debt gap,” Rhodes said in an email interview. “Rural college-goers’ higher debt can be partly explained by their parents tending to have lower incomes, lower wealth, and less education compared to their non-rural counterparts. Rural college-goers’ higher rates of migration during college also plays a significant role.”

Rhodes said the best paying jobs in rural areas that do not require a college degree are often male-dominated. 

“As a result, rural women may feel greater pressure than rural men to take on debt to attend college,” he said. “These combined ‘penalties’ of being a woman and having a rural background may contribute to especially high student debt levels among rural women.”

Asked how he thought inequity among geographies and genders could be remedied, he said: “One response that has been getting a lot of media attention recently is cancelation of federal student debt, and my results strongly suggest rural college-goers and especially rural women would disproportionately benefit from this kind of policy.”

“Another approach would be to revitalize state investment in higher education as a public good to make public colleges more affordable. We also need to address the long-term working- and middle-class wage stagnation that has disproportionately impacted rural Americans and their ability to pay for college without taking on student debt,” he added.

Another idea, he said, is to establish grant aid policies to help cover the costs of migration, including travel and housing, during college. 

“I’d like to emphasize that there is very little social science research on geographic inequalities in student debt,” he said. “While this paper is an important first step in documenting rural-nonrural disparities in debt, it raises many unanswered questions about the social implications of these inequalities for young adults from rural backgrounds and rural communities.”

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