Rural Youth: Who’s Staying, Who’s Leaving?

[imgbelt img=maple-wisconsin-high-school-class530.jpg]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.


Paul Walsh

The Class of 2010 at Northwestern High School in Maple, Wisconsin.

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.