Juan Pinilla didn’t set out to study the extreme shortage of rural students at elite colleges and universities. He just wanted to examine the role college rankings play in a student’s decision to attend one of those top institutions: in this case, Georgetown.
As a student in the Master’s in Higher Education Administration program, Pinilla landed a part-time job at the university’s Center for Student Engagement, where he worked with undergraduates in new student orientation. There, he also did some “snowball sampling,” asking students, via a survey, to assess the role that college rankings played in their selection—and then, to pass the survey on to their friends and classmates.
There are times in research when you discover something unexpected—perhaps something even more significant than what you originally sought. That’s what happened with Pinilla.
He learned that, yes, Georgetown students do indeed pay close attention to college rankings when choosing a school. But, more importantly, he found that the vast majority of students answering the survey were from urban and suburban areas; rural students were barely represented.
As a result of Pinilla’s study, Georgetown’s Office of Assessment and Decision Support is looking into why so few students from rural areas make it to schools like Georgetown.
“They want to do more targeted outreach, specifically, of rural students and also collect more qualitative data about what influenced these rural students to apply to these schools,” Pinilla says.
In May 2022, Pinilla received a Georgetown Tropaia Award for being the top student in the program. Then, after graduating—and looking for a job in higher education—he was offered a position with the international law firm Latham and Watkins, looking for lawyers who would make good partners for the firm.
It was not what Pinilla had been seeking. But sometimes, just as in research, the pursuit itself can lead to something new.