During the 2016 spring semester, the Grundy County Family Resource Center, Grundy County High School (GCHS), and University of the South professor Paige Schneider’s Politics of Poverty and Inequality class partnered to conduct a survey investigating the college experiences of recent GCHS graduates. Two hundred and forty-four alumni of the classes of 2008 through 2015 completed the survey and were entered in a drawing for a new iPad Air 2. Jonathan Carreto from the class of 2008 was the lucky winner. After graduating from GCHS, Carreto earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, where he is now employed by the Putnam County Sherriff’s Department.
“This survey has been a goal of mine for years,” says Emily Partin, director of the Family Resource Center. “I am passionate about our young people getting the skills they need to support their own families one day. In order to help, we have to find out what is working for students who complete college or technical school and what might be blocking the progress of those who have stopped along the way. That is what this survey is all about.” Partin continues, “Up to this point, the survey has largely captured people currently enrolled in college and those who earned degrees. We would like to encourage those who never went to college and those who dropped out of college to take the survey posted on the GCHS Post-graduate Survey Facebook page, or call me at the FRC office at 931-592-4372.”
According to Schneider, recent data demonstrate that college graduation rates in rural counties continue to fall below urban counties among students with a similar sociodemographic profile, and rural graduation rates are much lower than the national average of 59 percent. “The gap between low-income students and high-income students in college going and completion is growing in the U.S., and rural students have fallen behind the most. This downward trajectory is worrisome given the demands of a knowledge-based economy where a technical degree or four-year college education is essential to securing a job that pays a living wage.”
Of this survey’s participants, 26 percent had earned a post-secondary degree and 44 percent were enrolled in college. The survey suggested that involvement in the METS (MTSU Educational Talent Search) program and earning college credit while in high school were related to these students’ success.
Thirteen percent of participants had dropped out of college; results indicated that non-academic factors impacted this decision more than academic ability. Generally, the major reasons people cited for discontinuing school were related to finances and the need to work. One of the least common responses for why someone dropped out of college was “some of the classes were too difficult,” and only 13 percent of dropouts had below a C average.
Another striking finding was that when asked if they would have taken basic community college classes on the mountain if offered, 69 percent of participants said “yes” and 18 percent said “probably,” which suggests that 87 percent of GCHS graduates would likely take college classes on the mountain if they were available.
These results point to the need for more higher education opportunities and support on the mountain. The Grundy County community is currently looking into opportunities for a college support center where students will be able to access a computer lab and study space, study groups, and general education college courses. The hope is that providing these resources on the mountain will reduce the financial and time burdens on students who commute to college and keep them engaged in their education.
Research associates Brandon Miller and Kate Wiley, who work with Partin at the Family Resource Center, provided key assistance working with the college students to develop and distribute the survey and collect and analyze the results. The Politics of Poverty class is a community engagement course offered under the University’s new Office of Community Engagement. The project received a grant from the Collaborative for Southern Appalachian Studies to cover expenses.