Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Perceived Barriers to Pursuing a University Education for Persons in Rural Areas

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Perceived Barriers to Pursuing a University Education for Persons in Rural Areas

Article excerpt

Attaining a university degree helps an individual achieve greater employment options, a higher income potential, and improved health and overall quality of life (Alberta Advanced Education [AAE], 2005). However, university enrolment is not evenly distributed across the population. According to the Youth in Transition Survey (Finnie, Childs, & Wismer, 2011), those most likely to enrol in university tend to come from families with higher incomes and higher levels of parental education. Particularly noteworthy is that young persons from rural areas in Canada are less likely to attend university compared to their urban counterparts, 32% versus 45%, respectively (Finnie et al., 2011). Although a growing body of research highlights how young persons from rural areas are underrepresented in universities across Canada (AAE, 2005; Arnold, Newman, Gaddy, & Dean, 2005; Kirby, 2009), there remains little understanding as to what variables account for this "rural effect," over and above income and parental education.

Research exploring barriers to university for persons from rural areas traditionally has focused on broad demographic variables, such as socioeconomic status, cost, and geographical distance (Finnie et al., 2011; Frenette, 2006; Quinn, 2004). However, some research suggests that the barriers preventing rural youth from pursuing a university education are multidimensional and interrelated (AAE, 2005). For example, Engle and Tinto (2008) used data from the U.S. Department of Education and found that low-income, first-generation students face academic, social, and cultural adaptation barriers such as being older, having more obligations outside of school, and not receiving financial support from parents. Moreover, there are growing concerns about the cost of postsecondary education and the large debt loads that students develop (Finnie et al., 2011; Looker & Lowe, 2001). The last is especially burdensome for rural students, who may need to move away from their community and, as a result, accumulate about $20,000 or more of debt than those living at home during their education (Kirby, 2009).

Beyond cost, several social-related factors may represent barriers. For example, an Australian study by Alloway and Gilbert (2004) investigated differences in male and female enrolment trends and found that participants from rural areas held stronger expectations regarding male and female roles. For example, many believed "real" men work instead of study, and that university was boring and "for nerds." Moreover, male participants wanted to make money right after high school rather than studying for several years and having to rely on their parents to support them financially. Furthermore, because individuals from rural communities tend to have limited personal experience with university, students and parents generally rely on information provided by school counsellors or teachers (Lynch & O'Riordan, 1998). However, rural schools tend to offer few, if any, postsecondary preparation courses (Alberta Students Executive Council, 2011; Arnold et al., 2005; Caledon Institute of Social Policy, 2010; Myers & de Broucker, 2006). Indeed, results from a Canadian study found that rural students had lower levels of awareness of postsecondary school opportunities than urban students (AAE, 2005).

The limited exposure rural students have to information about university may make them uncomfortable with the idea of attending one. In fact, research shows that they worry about "fitting in" among their urban peers (Lehmann, 2007). The concern of "fitting in" supports Bourdieu's (1977) theory of habitus. Habitus refers to unconsciously learned norms and preferences, established through family upbringing, that guide how a person thinks, feels, and acts. That is, habitus is the lens through which individuals come to understand their world, where they fit in it, and what opportunities are within their reach, given their particular position in a society (Edgerton & Roberts, 2014). …

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