Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

"Like Human Beings": Responsive Relationships and Institutional Flexibility at a Rural Community College

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Rural Education (Online)

"Like Human Beings": Responsive Relationships and Institutional Flexibility at a Rural Community College

Article excerpt

Drawing on data from a program serving displaced workers and adult students, this article explores how students at a small rural-serving community college in North Carolina believe rurality influences their retention. We review the research and descriptive literature on rural community college challenges, advantages, and approaches to supporting non-traditional students. We then describe our research design, including characteristics of the study site and the program for displaced workers and adult students. Analyzing student interviews and staffreflections, we find that only half of interviewed students view the community in which their college is located as rural. For those who do consider the area rural, the loss of economic opportunity defines rurality, rather than constitutive attributes such as access to the natural environment or tightly-knit local relationships. Regardless of their perception of the community as rural or non-rural, all of our interviewees reported that responsive faculty and staffand institutional flexibility contributed to their postsecondary persistence. Rural constraints such as family commitments and lack of entertainment options may also ironically support retention for some students. We conclude with a discussion of implications of our study for policy, practice and research.

In the wake of the Great Recession, community colleges serve increasing populations of displaced workers and other adult students (Sepich, 2011; Taylor, Fry, Wang, Dockterman & Velasco, 2009). This is especially the case in rural communities (Katsinas, Mensel, Hagedorn, Friedel & D'Amico, 2012), which have faced farm closures or consolidation, the movement of industry overseas, contracting labor markets, growing unemployment, declining tax bases and weakening infrastructure-all largely the effects of agribusiness contraction, boom and bust cycles of extractive industries, and globalization (Berry, 1986; Collins & Quark, 2006; Davidson, 1996; Longworth, 2007; Schlosser, 2002; Wood, 2010). Although rural community colleges often face considerable challenges in providing accessible postsecondary education due to funding constraints and difficulty recruiting qualified faculty (Cejda, 2010; Eddy, 2007; Hicks & Jones, 2011; Katsinas, Tollefson & Reamey, 2008; Miller & Tuttle, 2007; Murray, 2005; Pennington, Williams & Karvonen, 2006), let alone meeting the needs of new adult student populations, it is possible that such institutions may also possess particular advantages that allow them to support non-traditional students more effectively than their non-rural counterparts. For example, displaced workers who return to school may find the experience daunting; but the presence of local kinship networks on campus or the lack of organizational complexity may help such students adjust to their postsecondary educational experiences (Hardy & Katsinas, 2007; Pennington, Williams & Karvonen, 2006; Smith, 2008).

This study explores how adult students and the staffof a retention program for displaced workers at one small, rural-serving community college-Richmond Community College (RCC)-view the role of rurality in postsecondary persistence. Accordingly, our research addresses the following research question: In what ways, if at all, do staffand participants of the retention program for adult students and displaced workers at RCC think that rural context influenced their ability to persist?

Adult Students: An Emerging Challenge for Rural Community Colleges

Rural community colleges serve changing student populations, a consequence of increasing numbers of nontraditional students, displaced workers, and those seeking to update work skills (Pennington, Williams & Karvonen, 2006) in the context of overall larger rural than non-rural enrollment growth rates (Katsinas, et al., 2012). To ensure the academic success of such students, rural institutions are offering a variety of new support services and making programmatic adjustments, such as microcredentials (or credential stacking), and integrating developmental education into technical curricula (Garza & Eller, 1998). …

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