Rural Community Colleges Developing Perceptions of Self-Identity

Article excerpt

Rural America, in direct competition with growing suburban and urban America, has struggled to maintain a high quality of life. Rural out-migration levels are high, as are poverty and illiteracy rates. Rural community colleges have worked to defend and expand opportunities in rural settings, yet face their own challenges tied to resources, business partners, and secondary education quality. An unexplored area that rural community colleges may find useful to consider is their role in formulating personal identity development. The current study explores how three case study institutions in the mid-south influenced the identity development of youth, college students, alumni, business and industries and their leaders, and college faculty. The findings support the contention that rural colleges do play a major role in helping students and community members learn to question their assumptions about others and their own life choices.

A WIDE VARIETY of stakeholders and constituents have an interest in the performance, behavior, and activities of community colleges. The success of community colleges depends significantly on their ability to connect with their communities, whether public agencies or students looking for job training. The connection is often obviously economic or educational, but it can be closely interconnected with societal progress. Community colleges can be important mechanisms in improving a locale's quality of life and how communities view themselves. Through the provision of resources and opportunities-both educational and social-community colleges can be an integral part of community success. Their role is particularly important for rural America, where the out-migration of the rural population has been over 15% during the past decade. Additionally, rural America has struggled to keep up with the economic pace of suburban and urban areas on many fronts including employment opportunities, wealth creation, and business growth (Annie casey Foundation, 2004). Rural America has been further challenged by the exportation of many manufacturing jobs and the rise of corporate farming industries that diminish the need for labor in rural settings (Drabenstott, 2005).

About one-fifth of the United States population lives in what could be defined as a rural location, even though 85% of U.S. geography is defined as rural. A recent report by the Annie casey Foundation (2004) highlighted the choices rural Americans make to live close to relatives, feel safe and secure, and continue their heritage. In 1993, there were over 56 million people living in rural areas and by 2003, that number had dropped by 16% to 48 million, with the balance moving to metropolitan areas which have a total population of over 232 million. These 48 million rural Americans have had a higher poverty rate than their metropolitan counterparts for the past 40 years (currently 14% compared to 11%), they have a lower per capita income ($17,884 compared to $24,069), and they have a lower median household income ($33,601 compared to $45,219). Rural Americans are also less likely to hold a college degree (15% compared to 27% in metropolitan areas), are less likely to have graduated from high school (70% compared to 82%), and are less likely to have access to a variety of services including dedicated telephone lines, computing access, and other amenities (for these and additional figures related to the state of rural America, see the Rural Policy Research Institute at www.rupri.org).

Despite general agreement that higher education can positively influence a community's livelihood, there has been little exploration of the transformational power an institution can exert on a community. Although there have been a number of economic impact studies reporting high returns on investment for college involvement in community businesses (Caffrey 6k Isaacs, 1971; Brooks, 1996), there has been no effort to explore the social impact of colleges and universities on the individual, particularly the individual's sense of self. …