So this afternoon, an unusual request sent me down a rabbit hole.

A colleague over in ITS asked me what seemed on the surface a relatively simple question: how many students that enroll come from rural environments within Pennsylvania?

During the course of the conversation, I expanded that to include those who visit our website but might not end up enrolling who were from Pennsylvania, since a lot of Penn State’s services also assist those outside of the officially-affiliated Penn State community.  Not to mention that was an easier number to come by, relatively speaking.

To that end, I went to our web analytics and expanded to look over the course of a year. Just on the high end of traffic, it was pretty easy to see the major population centers in the commonwealth. Likewise, by going to the low end of traffic, you could see the less densely populated areas, though this was less accurate. But here we run into the problem that folks from rural environments may not be online, and thus not even making it onto this count.

So what about our enrollment numbers? There’s no checkmark (rural/urban) for us to bounce against, thus the Penn State Fact Book doesn’t list it, nor have we ever run these numbers before. After talking to one of my data-minded colleagues, our best solution was to tap into our sociology folks at the university for a list of “rural” zip codes: once we had that, from there we could run these numbers with some degree of accuracy. Problem is, even a ballpark was tough to come by until we had some definitions like this.

Simple question, yes? Not so very.

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