College Stop-Out Among Rural Undergraduates
Rural undergraduates lag behind urban and suburban undergraduates across many measures of college success, even though they graduate from high school at a higher rate. While a small but growing body of research literature addresses the challenges and barriers rural students face during the college process, few, if any, studies have focused specifically on the experience of rural undergraduates who withdraw from college before completing a degree.This qualitative phenomenological study examines the experiences of rural, low-income, first-in-family undergraduates who stop out of college. Study participants (n=13) attended high school in different rural communities and geographic regions across the United States. After participating in an Upward Bound program during high school, they each enrolled in a two- or four-year, undergraduate degree program at an accredited, non-profit college or university and then withdrew prior to completing a degree. Following in the tradition of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and using the framework provided by Clark Moustakas (1994), I engaged study participants in open ended, semi-structured interviews. After those conversations, participants submitted independently recorded voice memos about their experience stopping out of college. The rural backgrounds of study participants manifested in many aspects of how and what they experienced when they withdrew from college. The phenomenon was described as an intense and devastating period of time, characterized by feelings of failure, shame, confusion, and disappointment. The distinct influence of rural families, communities, and schools shaped participants’ decisions before, during, and after their time at college. While the reasons students withdrew varied widely and may be similar to those of non-rural students, all participants perceived their rural background as deeply implicated in the stop-out experience. This study offers a new orientation on the topic of college stop-out among rural undergraduates and presents a working persistence model for this underserved student group. The three theoretical perspectives presented in this study – transcendental phenomenology, ecological systems theory, and community cultural wealth – expose broader meaning about both the objective and subjective qualities of the stop-out experience, adding a depth to findings that has broad implications for scholars and practitioners. This study concludes with practical insights for educators, policymakers, and institutions that serve rural undergraduates.