A new study of rural youth in North Carolina finds that students from poorer families are more likely to want to leave their home towns, but less likely to do so.
For rural teenagers, moving into adulthood raises special ambivalence and difficulty. We know, for those problems were once our problems, too. Our interest in rural kids’ mixed feelings about their educational and residential plans arises in part from our own complicated relationships with the rural communities where we came of age.
On one hand, we felt the draw of our hometowns —their familiarity, the friendships we enjoyed there, places we cherished. We also felt pulled away, toward college and jobs our towns did not offer and toward cosmopolitan adventures that we hoped would mask the ruralness we had learned to disdain. We enjoyed our local social capital but looked for cultural capital elsewhere.
In the end, we made the kinds of choices that a lot of middle-class rural young adults make: we settled in areas in or near more urban places to pursue higher education and professional careers.
But we have some regrets. Our children are growing up less connected to the earth than we would like; we aren’t exactly at home in the suburbs; and there’s an uncomfortable irony in being rural education researchers who, in fact, don’t live in rural places.
Many people, of course, feel these same tensions. Lots of rural teenagers across the country face the same dilemma about their adult lives, one that perpetuates the exodus of so many young people from rural places. They feel they have to choose between staying as adults in their home communities but maybe sacrificing educational or economic opportunities or leaving to pursue school and work options elsewhere, likely someplace more urban.
Plenty of research documents that rural youth struggle with this quandary. And there’s also a body of research to show that socioeconomic status (SES) influences what kids aspire to in terms of education, what they expect to do, and what they actually do.
Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas’ ethnography Hollowing out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America shows how socioeconomic status, among other factors, influences students’ decisions to remain in their local communities as adults or leave for opportunities elsewhere.
Their study points up the contrast between “Achievers” and “Stayers.” Achievers tend to come from elite and middle class families; they perform well academically and are enthusiastically encouraged by parents and teachers to focus on their high school studies and pursue higher education. Achievers tend to leave their communities of origin, seeking education and careers more often in urban places.
Stayers tend to come from working class families and have little interest in school; often they have been educationally neglected. They tend to remain in their communities as adults, often underemployed or in unstable, low wage jobs. Although students’ own academic engagement influences how they are treated by teachers, Carr and Kefalas show that students’ socioeconomic status seemed to contribute significantly as well.
But there’s a gap in the research—we don’t know as much about how attachment to place and SES affect rural kids’ educational and residential plans. So we took up this question in a study this summer.
Our research is part of a larger effort to understand the relationships among place attachment, SES and the educational and residential plans of rural English Language Learners (ELL) in North Carolina. ELL students are non-English speakers who need, and are by law entitled to, additional help. We chose to focus on North Carolina because the state has recently had really dramatic ELL growth rates. Unfortunately, we didn’t get enough ELL kids in our first round of data collection—only about 2% could be called ELLs. We’re in the middle of another round of data collection, though, and hope to include more ELL children this time.
A total of 149 high schools met our study criteria for being rural and having ELL populations that grew by 100% or more over the last 10 years. We invited the schools to take the survey online, andby the middle of June had received 501 student responses.
The kids who responded tended, on average, to be lower to middle class. About half were African American, and slightly more than half were female. Five percent were Hispanic/Latino. Roughly a quarter each were in the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades. About 40% of students said that they tended to earn As or Bs, while 43% said they earned Bs or Cs. Fifteen percent (15%) reported earning Cs or Ds, and 2% Ds or Fs.
So, what did we learn about these rural kids’ place attachment, and academic and residential plans?
To measure place attachment, we asked youth to rate their level of agreement with each of five statements about their communities, on a scale from 1 = Strongly Disagree to 5 = Strongly Agree. We then summed kids’ ratings and calculated an overall average score for the subscale measuring place attachment. The average score was 3.26, meaning that, in general, kids were only moderately attached to their local communities.
To measure educational aspirations, we asked students to identify the highest level of education they hoped to achieve. A total of 70% indicated that they hoped to earn at least a bachelor’s degree (Nearly 30% hoped for “some high school,” a high school diploma. “some college”, or an associates degree.)
We requested that students identify the highest level of education they expected to achieve. Sixty-five percent (65%) indicated that they expected to achieve at least a bachelor’s degree, a somewhat smaller percentage than those reporting that they hoped to achieve at least this level of education.
We also asked the young people in our study to indicate whether they would prefer to live in their communities or somewhere else. Only about a fifth said that they’d rather stay local as adults.
Then we looked at the data more closely. In general, we found the following patterns.
• Lower SES youths are more attached to place.
• Overall, young people’s educational aspirations are higher than their expectations.
• Higher SES students have higher educational aspirations.
• Higher SES students have higher educational expectations.
• Higher SES students would prefer to live in their communities as adults in larger percentages than their lower SES peers.
We then used a statistical technique called multivariate regression to look at how all of these factors interact together to influence young people’s educational and residential plans.
We found that place attachment negatively influences educational aspirations and expectations (those more attached to place had lower-grade hopes for educational attainment), while higher SES positively influences educational plans. We also found that higher SES students with strong place attachment tend to aspire to, and expect, higher levels of education than do poor students with limited place attachment.
The factors influencing rural youths’ residential preferences work out somewhat differently. Higher SES exerts a significant and positive role on the likelihood that youth will prefer to remain in their local communities as adults. But there’s also an interesting relationship between SES and place attachment. On one hand, lower SES kids are more attached to their local communities than their wealthier peers; on the other hand, they would prefer to live elsewhere in larger percentages than higher SES youth. And higher SES students are conflicted as well—they tend to be less attached to place but more likely to report that they would prefer to remain in their local communities as adults.
We wondered why higher SES youth report more often than lower SES kids that they’d prefer to remain in their local communities. If the dynamic Carr and Kefalas identify is actually taking place (with teachers nurturing Achievers and paying less attention to Stayers), higher SES students may get more affirming experiences than lower SES youths, and may in turn may look fondly on their local communities as adult places of residence. But the dynamic might not have been so hospitable for lower SES students, who may then prefer to seek residence as adults elsewhere.
Whatever the explanation, we worry that our findings herald a rural hollowing out that is even more desperate than that described by Carr and Kefalas. Most students in our sample (81%) would not prefer to live in their local communities as adults. Among those who would prefer to stay, the larger percentage is higher SES youth with postsecondary plans that will take them out of their communities. Although some of these people may in fact return, as teachers or doctors, for example, most will not. Lower SES youth, despite their local attachments and lower educational aspirations and expectations, would prefer to live somewhere else as adults. Some may find that they are unable or unwilling to leave, but others will move on. In sum, it appears that a lot of young people will continue to leave rural communities.
Caitlin Howley is a Senior Manager for Education and Research in the Appalachian Regional Office of ICF International. Kimberly Hambrick is Regional Director of the Appalachian Regional Office of ICF International.