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

Tensions Impacting Student Success in a Rural Community College

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

Tensions Impacting Student Success in a Rural Community College

Article excerpt

While the northern and southern regions of Appalachia have succeeded in acquiring quality of life and economic standards typically used by the government to measure "success," the central Appalachian area continues to trail behind (Eller, 2008). In fact, five of the poorest 25 counties in the United States can be found in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, counties in which one in three residents lives below the poverty level. This high rate of poverty has been linked to low education attainment rates. Between 2007 and 2011, for example, the 72.6% high school completion rates in Kentucky's Appalachian high schools (Appalachian Regional Commission [ARC], 2013a) were far below the n ational average of 85.4% (ARC, 2013b). Even more disturbing was the difference in college completion rates. Only 12.7% of eastern Kentucky's high school graduates completed college between 2007 and 2011 (ARC, 2013a), compared to a national rate of 28.2% (ARC, 2013c). Future economic growth of Kentucky, and particularly of this specific region, has been tied to goals of increasing the number of college degree holders within its population (Council on Postsecondary Education, 2010). Strategies to increase the number of bachelor's degree recipients in Kentucky, with their impact on future economic growth, have become a major focus of Kentucky's Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE). With nearly half of all college students beginning their postsecondary education at a community college, improving the pipeline from high school to community college to four-year institutions is of increasing importance (CPE, 2004).


Understanding the role of the community college in rural areas is critical in helping students to successfully negotiate the academic pipeline from high school to acquisition of a bachelor's degree. Our three-member research team conducted a qualitative study to address this research question: From students' perspectives, what phenomena serve as barriers and as sources of encouragement, impacting decision making at critical transition steps in their academic pathways from high school, through the community college and to the point of transfer to a four-year university in pursuit of a bachelor's degree? Our research question was divided into three subparts, each assigned as the primary focus for one member of our collaborative research team. One researcher focused on high school students' decisionmaking processes about attending the local community college as a steppingstone to a four-year degree. A second researcher focused on currently enrolled community college students, in their second and fourth semesters of continuous enrollment following their high school graduation, in an investigation of decision-making processes impacting students' abilities to remain continuously enrolled at the community college in pursuit of their goal to transfer. The third researcher focused on current community college students in their fourth semester of continuous enrollment since high school to determine factors influencing their decisions about transfer.

Of the various phenomena that emerged in our study (Giltner, Hlinka, & Mobelini, 2012a, 2012b), three themes surfaced as pervasive and powerful tensions that impact students' abilities to successfully traverse this defined academic pathway: (a) the need to be "coddled" to increase retention vs. the need to "cut the apron strings" to build selfreliance, (b) the "push" of encouragement vs. the "pull" of family responsibilities, and (c) the decision to stay vs. the decision to leave the area. Recognition of these conflicting pressures can guide efforts of community college leaders to help transfer-bound students build the skills necessary to complete this leg of their educational journeys.

Methods and Data

Only students can truly reveal their decision-making processes at these defined stages of their educational progression. Especially in Appalachia, students' voices have historically been largely ignored; the absence of an Appalachian voice in earlier studies of the region is highlighted by Appalachian journalists, historians, and novelists such as Carney (2000), Eller (2000), and Norman (2000). …

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