Our research seeks to identify factors that predict college going, retention, and graduation among a sample of 18-26 year-olds in Grundy County Tennessee, a county with significantly lower college completion rates than the national average (see slides 3 and 4 on linked presentation). We developed a survey to identify the barriers and challenges to admission, retention, and graduation in a population whose experiences are generalizable to rural Southern youth around the region.

We reached out to Grundy County High School graduates from the past eight years (the class of 2016 had not yet graduated during our initial push). The 279 respondents were categorized as “currently enrolled in college,” “never went to college,” “went to college but dropped out,” and “graduated from college.” Questions focused on attitudes about college, aptitude for college success, obstacles other than aptitude (e.g., finances, transportation), and general feelings of accessibility.

One of our most striking findings was that, of the 54 respondents who never enrolled in college, many had applied, received financial aid and 22 were accepted to the college to which they applied. We also found that some of the most common reasons students cited for dropping out of college were “I needed to go to work and make money,” “could not afford tuition,” “did not seem to be worth the money,” “Class schedules did not fit with my work schedule,” “I did not have enough time for my family or child care issues,” and “Traveling to school was too far.” Fifty-four percent of these students had taken out loans for school (n = 15/28).

We are planning focus groups based on our initial data and revising the survey for additional data collection. Based on the results, we hope to build a robust wraparound support system for local students.

Dr. Paige Schneider engaged her Politics of Poverty and Inequality (POLS210) class to assist with this project and engage them with issues affecting postsecondary achievement. Students living in rural areas, including rural Appalachia, have some of the lowest college going rates in the country. A 2015 meta-analysis of education research published between 1995 and 2015, with a focus on middle Appalachia (operationalized to include Tennessee) confirms that college completion rates in central Appalachia still lag behind other regions of the country. In the article the authors note, “that unique supports may be needed for students form middle Appalachia to enroll and persist in college, including social and community supports, as well as curricula grounded in local issues to increase relevance and support students’ desires to contribute to the betterment of home communities.”[1] Exposing Sewanee students to the challenges associated with postsecondary educational attai nment in Appalachia is an invaluable lesson in understanding rural poverty and furthering the mission of the Collaborative.

The project was a successful partnership between faculty at the university, Sewanee students, and professionals in the field of community development and education, working together on a significant social and economic problem in the Appalachian region.


Did your work on this project give you any ideas for future courses, research projects, other activities, and/or products? What sorts of support or resources might these require?

Sewanee students helped contact graduates and administered the survey by phone. Our team also administered the survey online at a local festival. Two Sewanee students–a first year student and a senior–enrolled in the Politics of Poverty class, were particularly helpful in reaching out to Grundy County graduates using various social media platforms with an invitation to take the survey. We found that asking recent Grundy County High School graduates to reach out to their classmates was the most successful approach to recruiting respondents for the survey.

After collecting our initial round of data, we presented our preliminary findings at the Appalachian Studies Association’s annual conference. We also presented these findings at an open presentation on Sewanee’s campus.

During analyses, it became apparent that the initial survey design made data analyses difficult. We are in the process of reformatting the survey to simplify future analyses and plan to launch it with the classes of 2016 and 2017. We want to survey every graduating GCHS class to gauge changes in postsecondary attitude, aptitude, and accessibility. We provided an iPad as an incentive during the first round of data collection and had a good response rate. We are unsure if this success was because of the giveaway or because of recent graduates’ assistance in recruiting their classmates. We believe it was the latter, so we may not need such a large incentive in the future.

While we are in the process of redesigning the survey, we also plan to host a few focus groups to determine if there are additional questions we want to ask to future participants. Dr. Paige Schneider is also working on a paper for publication.

For the first time, as far as we know, there will be a small group of students, faculty, and possibly staff coming together in the fall semester at The University of the South, to support rural students, and especially first generation students from the surrounding communities. The group will have two upper class mentors from Grundy and Coffee counties, and will meet bi-weekly to discuss any challenges facing first year rural students. This initiative was inspired in part by the research that we conducted with the Collaborative grant.