How important is the presence of a school to rural communities?

The 20th century saw a great deal of school consolidation in the United States, particularly in rural areas, with the number of schools dropping from around 238,000 at the beginning of the century to 61,000 toward the end, and the number of school districts falling from 128,000 to 16,000, even as the general population more than tripled. The drive for efficiency and increasing opportunity for urban immigrants were two of many forces that drove the move to larger, more centralized education structures. Yet even as schools continue to increase in average size, recent research suggests that, all other variables being equal, students in small schools tend to outperform their peers in larger schools. In support of these findings, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Small Schools Project and, in 2003, allocated more than $100 million to create small schools and bolster existing ones.

Research also suggests that the removal of a school from a community can have a significant negative effect on the social structures of the community. In addition to the obvious role of educating children, schools also serve as centers for civic education and community employment. As highlighted in the study discussed here, Wayne Fuller, an authority on rural education and author of The Old Country School: The Story of Rural Education in the Midwest(1982, University of Chicago Press), commented 20 years ago that closing a country school means destroying an institution that holds the community together.

Consolidation has other, less overt, but just as important effects on students. For example, rural students are more likely to face long bus rides across considerable distances and over poorly paved (or unpaved) roads. And because the buses often serve a number of schools, these students are also likely to ride with children who are significantly older (or younger) than they are. Despite this broad range of issues, little research has been done on the specific importance of a school to the community it serves.


Thomas Lyson conducted the study highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). Lyson looked at schools in New York using census data from the 1990 census data file in conjunction with New York State Department of Education data on the name and address of each school in the state. In designing the study, he focused on incorporated communities with 500 or fewer residents and those with 501-2,500 residents. (Cities with populations greater than 2,500 were not included in the study because the Census Bureau considers them urban centers.) The author also dropped from the data set a small group of outliers, based on the assumption that they were high-income, gated communities (based on average housing values, types of employment represented, and private school attendance patterns).

Lyson found that many of the smallest communities did not have schools. Just over half the communities with 500 or fewer residents supported a school, whereas almost three-quarters of communities with populations of 501-2,500 had schools, as did 90 percent of urban centers (population over 2,500). Most of the small communities lost population during the 1990s, although 60 percent of the smallest communities that had schools saw growth (compared to only 46 percent of the communities without schools).

In the smallest rural communities, the presence of a school was associated with much higher property values, with statistically significant differences between school communities and nonschool communities. Although the same pattern held for larger rural communities, the difference was not significant. Communities with schools were also more likely to have municipal water and sewage, as well as newer houses, although the difference regarding the municipal services was only significant in larger rural communities.

Average income levels were similar across communities, but smaller rural communities without schools had a higher percentage of households receiving public assistance, a higher per capita income from public assistance, and a higher percentage of children living in poverty (though, again, the differences did not reach statistical significance). The income gap between rich and poor, however, was statistically significant, with a much larger income gap in small rural communities without schools.

Across all rural communities, those with schools had significantly more professional workers in the workforce and a larger percentage of households with self-employment income. The workforce in both large and small communities was also more likely (again, at significant levels) to work within those communities.

Taken together, Lyson suggests that rural communities with schools are economically more viable and have fewer inequities than their counterpart communities with no schools. He also notes that the greater presence of self-employed workers (and narrowed income gaps), as well as improved municipal services, suggests a stronger middle class in communities with schools, and correspondingly greater civic engagement.


Rural communities-particularly those with less than 500 residents that are supported by the presence of schools are economically and civically more robust and represent fewer inequities, than similar communities without schools.


The research highlighted in this brief focused on 297 rural communities in New York State.


The research highlighted here is correlational. Although the findings suggest that rural communities with schools are economically stronger than their nonschool counterparts, we cannot tell whether the school causes such outcomes. In other words, does the school cause the wealth, or does the wealth support the school? The author also mixes two data sets that are separated by seven years (the 1990 census and the 1997 school data), which could affect the findings. Dropping the gated communities may also have artificially strengthened the findings in this research because many of these wealthy communities did not have schools (only 33 percent had schools, compared with 77 percent of the other communities). Including these communities in the analysis could have weakened the finding that rural communities with schools have higher property values and greater economic viability.


Lyson, T. (2002, Winter). What does a school mean to a community? Assessing the social and economic benefits of schools to rural villages in New York. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 17(3), 131-137. Retrieved December 22, 2004, from,n3,p131-137,Lyson.pdf(PDF)


Small Schools Project

Rural School and Community Trust

Navigating Resources for Rural Schools

OCRE: Organizations Concerned about Rural Education