Digest No. 01 - November 2016

Bounded Aspirations: Rural, African American High School Students and College Access

Means, D.R., A.B. Clayton, J.G. Conzelmann, P. Baynes, and P.D. Umbach. 2016. “Bounded Aspirations: Rural, African American High School Students and College Access.” The Review of Higher Education, 39(4), 543–569.


Darris R. Means, Ashley B. Clayton, Johnathan G. Conzelmann, Patti Baynes, and Paul D. Umbach assert that few studies have focused on the college choice process for rural African American high school students despite the fact that more than half of the school districts in the United States are considered rural and about one quarter of all public high school students are enrolled in a rural school (National Center for Educational Statistics 2013, p.1). To address this gap in knowledge of the college choice process, Means et al.’s study seeks to identify common themes regarding the college choice process for rural, African American high school students.

To identify common themes, the authors conducted interviews with 26 African American high school juniors (17 female and nine males) enrolled in a rural public high school, representing approximately 42 percent of their class. To gain further verification for the themes identified, the authors also interviewed 11 school staff members including the principal, the school counselor, and six teachers.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with each of the 26 students. The interview protocol included such questions as: What do you think attending college would be like? What might help you pursue higher education? What might prevent you from pursuing a college education?

Discussion of the Findings

Through their qualitative analysis, Means et al. identified three common themes: (1) the tensions of staying or going: college and career aspirations and rurality, (2) “pushed and encouraged” without a roadmap, and (3) financial aid and academic barriers to higher education. Each of these themes is described below.

The Tensions of Staying or Going: College and Career Aspirations and Rurality

The rural environment influences student views about the career and higher education opportunities available to them. The researchers identify two points of tension that emerge. One point centers on the limited career opportunities available in rural communities to college graduates; the other pertains to the students’ feelings regarding leaving home to attend college. The tensions of staying or going encompassed such issues as the desire to stay close to home and to take care of their families. Students might decide to go away to college but not outside of their state due to these tensions.

“Pushed and Encouraged” without a Roadmap

Despite their misgivings about going to college, students report having support from significant others such as family members, their school counselor, and their teachers. They had access to information about college-going, but the lack of a college-going culture at the school prevented them from acquiring such a roadmap. The goal of most of the students was to graduate from high school. As a consequence, school counselors had to give hands-on support to students to equip them with information. Although students report being “pushed and encouraged,” they nevertheless lacked a roadmap to reach higher education. Put differently, these students have not used the various sources of information on college-going to formulate a detailed plan for enrolling and then succeeding in college.

Financial Aid and Academic Barriers to Higher Education

The students interviewed discussed two primary barriers to higher education. One barrier pertained to their concerns about the cost of going to college. The authors noted that students were misinformed to the point of overestimating college costs. A lack of knowledge about financial aid was evident in that some students did not link receiving financial aid with the completion of the FAFSA form. Students also reported concerns about their academic preparation, citing a lack of academically rigorous courses. Their high school did not offer any advanced preparation courses such as advance placement (AP) classes.

Implications for Action by Campus Leaders

The above three themes pertaining to the college-going process for rural African American high school students point out constraints to the enrollment of African American students especially from rural high schools for CIC member colleges and universities. Because of such constraints, CIC institutions should set realistic goals for their enrollment of rural African American students.

In addition to goal setting, these three themes suggest programs that CIC member institutions might develop to assist rural African American high school students in their college-going process. For example, the authors recommend offering summer bridge programs for such students. The availability of summer bridge programs may alleviate some of the tensions of going away to college that rural African American students report. Presidents and chief academic officers also should encourage and financially support the admissions offices of their institutions to conduct college-going workshops at rural high schools enrolling African American students. These college-going workshops would provide information on the college application process as well as financial aid and the importance of completing the FAFSA form. Because of the importance of family support for going to college that rural African American students describe, family members might also be encouraged to attend such workshops.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

The following references are recommended for readers who want to learn more about the college choice process of African American high school students.

Bergerson, A.A. 2009. College Choice and Access to College: Moving Policy Research and Practice to the 21st Century. ASHE Higher Education Report, 35(4). San Franciso, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Byrum, S., L.L. Meece, and M.J. Irvin. 2012. “Rural-Nonrural Disparities in Postsecondary Educational Attainment Revisited.” American Educational Research Journal, 49, 412–437.

Freeman, K. 2005. African Americans and College Choice: The Influence of Family and School. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.