Rural Community College Students Break ‘Brain Drain’ Stereotype

By Diette Courrégé Casey — June 15, 2012 2 min read
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Although higher education leads to “brain drain” in many rural areas, a new study finds some Appalachian community college students use post-secondary education to improve their communities rather than leave them.

Thirty students at Southeast Community and Technical College in Harlan County, Ky., were interviewed for “Becoming to Remain: Community College Students and Post-Secondary Pursuits in Central Appalachia” by Christina J. Wright, of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. The study was published in the The Journal of Research in Rural Education.

Wright wanted to find out why students pursued post-secondary training and degrees in central Appalachia, how they applied their education, and whether it forced them to leave.

“Brain drain,”
or the phenomenon of educated students leaving their rural homes in search of better opportunities, is a real problem for some areas. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons there’s a lack of parent and community support for rural students pursuing post-secondary education. Rural students have the lowest post-secondary enrollment rates of those in any geographic area.

In this latest study, Wright found some students did connect post-secondary education with leaving. But others saw it as a means to better their hometowns.

“My research complicated the either/or dichotomy by finding some students who pursued advanced degrees in hopes of advancing local economies. They were staying in order to contribute to the becoming potential of the area,” according to the study.

It’s worth noting that the study area, similar to many Appalachian communities, has had a significant population decline during the past 20 years, and central Appalachia has one of the lowest college completion rates in the country.

Wright found a few other themes during her interviews, among them:
• Students’ perceptions of Harlan County shaped their education trajectories;
• Many described the social scene in the same way: “everybody knows everybody";
• Students talked about the lack of opportunities in the region, and tied those to economic problems;
• They chose Southeast Community College for similar reasons— it was close, cheap, and the hometown college;
• All students had family members or personal experience with the mining industry, and they saw education as a better option and a way to avoid that career path.

Wright suggests Kentucky and other rural areas would do well to “look at how those students at Southeast, seeking to transform their communities, are exemplars of successful place-based education.”

“By committing their futures to a region considered deficient, an emergent minority of Southeast students were finding ways to articulate regional possibilities. These possibilities included sustaining the local, not by providing ‘a ticket out,’ but instead by ensuring the educational ends which allowed them to become and remain,” according to the study.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rural Education blog.