Rural areas are defined in a number of ways according to the economic or social outcome of interest. Rural economic and demographic changes are closely linked; both are essential to understanding whether diverse rural areas are prospering or in distress, and how underlying factors such as education affect the well-being of rural communities. These trends vary widely across rural America.
Historically, nonmetro areas in the United States have lagged behind metro areas in educational attainment, but nonmetro educational attainment levels continue to increase. From 2000 to 2017–21, the share of adults with less than a high school diploma declined in nonmetro areas from 24 percent to 13 percent and the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 15 percent to 21 percent. However, the share of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher in metro areas increased from 26 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2017–21, widening the nonmetro-metro gap from 11 percentage points to 15 percentage points. One explanation for the persisting and widening gap may be the higher pay more highly-educated workers can often earn in metropolitan labor markets.