Rural Community Colleges Role in Community Development: Unintentional Outcomes of Continuing and Extended Education Activities

Article excerpt

Community colleges have been heralded as one of this country's educational success stories. They provide job training and remedial education, transfer education opportunities, entertainment and cultural enrichment, and serve economic development functions. Rural community colleges also provide key opportunities for local residents to get the education and job training necessary to keep living in the areas that they grew up in. They also serve as economic engines for rural communities, and provide one of the few opportunities for many rural communities to benefit from direct state support. Through their activities, they define communities, and frequently, their activities have results that even college administrators may not be fully aware of (Katsinas & Miller, 1998). These activities can specifically impact how individuals see and value themselves, and potentially, to define their sense of self-worth.

Rural community colleges can impact this identity development through the availability of their resources, both with for-credit and non-credit course and seminar offerings. Community members benefit from classes, seminars, and workshops that are specifically designed to improve professional skills. This skill enhancement can lead to a stronger self-image and greater personal confidence. Non-credit offerings can also impact a secondary audience; those who are the children of students, neighbors of individuals taking classes, siblings, parents, civic group members, and professional colleagues.

One particular mechanism for impacting a secondary audience is how the community college's facilities are used. Auditoriums, meeting space, residence halls, athletic facilities, cafeterias, and the like provide places for meetings, cultural events, social events, and sporting events. In many small towns, the community college facility is used in the same way as a civic center or reception hall, playing host to community concerts and wedding receptions. In these activities, the college becomes the center of the community, bringing a variety of citizen groups together in a manner that is unique to their locale. In a sense, the physical aspect of the rural community college facility is one of developing relationships among community members. In this sense, the college is a tool in constructing a sense of group identity, and that very group identity is inextricably linked to individual identity.

Rural America is indeed in need of addressing identity issues, as they have been the emphasis in media ridicule and have been well documented as having difficulty sustaining strong economies. Rural Americans are less likely to hold a college degree (15% do compared to 27% of those in suburban or 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 technology. Rural America has also historically been less diverse (Nelson, 2004), less supportive of small business development (Bird & Sapp, 2004), has poorer medical services (Annie casey, 2004), and has levels of poverty higher than the national average (O'Hare & Jonson, 2004))

Community colleges have the potential to impact and improve their communities through their formal and informal activities. These include both programming to improve the economic condition of their areas, but more importantly, they have the potential to shift the thinking and mentality of community members about their individual sense of self-worth and self-identity. The purpose for conducting this study was to begin to profile how rural community colleges impact self-identity development and subsequent feelings of self-worth. The focus of the research is on the non-credit, often continuing education offerings of community colleges and their unintended benefits.

Research Methods

As a descriptive, exploratory story, broad qualitative interview methods were employed to collect data. …