Rural Appalachian High School Students' College-Going and STEMM Perceptions.

Author:Rosecrance, Pamela H.

The authors examined perceptions of key social cognitive career theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) variables related to college-going and science, technology, engineering, math, and medical (STEMM) careers in 10th and 11th graders (N = 892) attending 3 rural Appalachian high schools. The authors examined differences in perceptions related to gender, prospective 1st-generation college student status, and the presence or absence of aspirations to pursue a STEMM career. Young women and young men scored similarly on all but 1 dependent variable, college-going self-efficacy (young women scored higher). Students who had STEMM career aspirations had higher scores on every measure than those who did not. Results suggest examining a 3rd prospective 1st-generation college student status group--students who are unsure of their parents' education level--as a distinct group in future research. By examining the college-going and STEMM attitudes of rural Appalachian high school students, this study advances the literature and informs practitioners on reducing educational and vocational inequalities in this region.

Keywords: Appalachia, college-going, SCCT, STEM, STEMM


After graduating from high school, young people face decisions about looking for a job and/or continuing their education. Although many students qualify and aspire to attend college, commonly they face barriers to the college-going process that prevent them from ever applying. These barriers include but are not limited to financial concerns, poor academic preparation, availability of college information, and self-limiting beliefs surrounding postsecondary achievement (Roderick, Coca, & Nagaoka, 2011). This gap between college aspirations and college attendance' demonstrates a need to understand the college-going beliefs and attitudes of high school students in general. Rural Appalachian high school students, in particular, are one cultural group wherein career and college-going information is lacking (see Gibbons, Brown, et al., 2019). Students from rural communities are more likely to graduate from high school but less likely to attend college than urban and suburban students (J. White, 2011). This is likely due to the unique barriers that rural high school students face to pursuing higher education. Compared with their urban and suburban peers, rural high school students have been shown to face greater socioeconomic challenges in attending college in addition to having parents with lower educational expectations and lower educational involvement (Byun, Meece, & Irvin, 2012).

College-going rates are especially low in rural Appalachia, with only 15.6% of adults earning a bachelor's degree (Pollard & Jacobsen, 2017) compared with 29% of adults nationally (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). This gap between college-going rates in rural Appalachia compared with the rest of the United States indicates the need to better understand the college-going attitudes and beliefs of high school students from rural Appalachia in particular. Over 25 million people live in the Appalachian region, and 42% of people in the region live in a rural area compared with 20% of the nation's population (Appalachian Regional Commission [ARC], 2017). Overall, rural Appalachians have lower levels of education and higher unemployment than others in Appalachia and nationally (Pollard & Jacobsen, 2017). Therefore, understanding students from this area will help counselors address equity and access issues related to career development.

One component of the career development process is decision-making with respect to whether to pursue a science, technology, engineering, math, or medical (STEMM) career. With the increasing demand in the United States for skilled STEMM workers (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017), it is especially important to understand this decision-making process. STEMM jobs account for a significant portion of job openings, and 99% of STEMM jobs require some postsecondary education (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). STEMM fields are seeing significantly faster job growth than are non-STEMM fields, and STEMM jobs come with greater financial and mobility opportunities (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017). Therefore, students who pursue STEMM jobs will likely need postsecondary education, will have better chances of finding a job in their field, and will earn more.

However, there is a deficit in adequately skilled STEMM workers relative to the projected openings (President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). Furthermore, deficits in STEMM preparation and achievement are more prevalent among marginalized populations, including first-generation college students (FGCSs; U.S. Department of Education, 2007), which tend to be overrepresented in rural communities because of the lower rates of adult college enrollment (Pollard & Jacobsen, 2017). These deficits magnify the urgent need for efforts to understand and increase college-going and STEMM pursuits among populations that demonstrate historically lower educational and career attainment, such as rural Appalachian high school students. The current study investigated group differences in rural Appalachian high school students' perceptions of important social-cognitive variables that predict interest in college-going and STEMM careers. With there being so little research on the collegegoing and STEMM attitudes of rural Appalachian high school students, we aim to advance the literature and provide information that can aid practitioners in their efforts to reduce educational and vocational inequalities in this region.

Social Cognitive Career Theory

Social cognitive career theory (SCCT; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994) has been a preferred model to conceptualize educational and vocational attainment in many groups. At the heart of SCCT are self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and goals and the ways they interact to influence career and educational goals and choices (Lent et al., 1994). Perceived barriers and supports, along with background characteristics, influence self-efficacy, outcome expectations, interests, and goal intentions (Lent et al., 1994). SCCT has been used to conceptualize math/science and postsecondary interests and intentions in diverse populations (e.g., Garriott, Flores, & Martens, 2013), including prospective first-generation college students (PFGCSs; Gibbons & Borders, 2010b) and rural (Wettersten et al., 2005) and rural Appalachian (Ali & McWhirter, 2006; Ali & Saunders, 2006; Gibbons, Hardin, Taylor, Brown, & Graham, 2019) high school students. In this study, we explored SCCT-derived variables including college-going self-efficacy, college outcome expectations, math/science self-efficacy, math/science interest, and STEMM aspirations, among a sample of rural Appalachian high school students.

Rural Appalachian Students

The Appalachian region comprises 420 counties, of which 107 are classified as rural, across 13 states (ARC, 2017). Although most people in rural Appalachia are European American, they have a distinct culture and unique circumstances that differentiate them from Whites elsewhere (deMarrais, 1998). Rural Appalachia is characterized by a rich shared cultural heritage, including enduring values of familism, traditionalism, localism, and self-reliance, many of which influence attitudes toward education and vocation (Keefe, 2005).

Unfortunately, rural Appalachia remains a poorly understood and often pervasively stereotyped region. An important challenge is balancing a recognition of the cultural strengths and diversity of experiences among the population with a recognition that, despite significant progress, Appalachian residents continue to face many socioeconomic and health inequities relative to people living elsewhere in the country (ARC, 2017; deMarrais, 1998; PDA, Inc., Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, & Appalachian Regional Commission, 2017). Twenty percent of Appalachian counties are classified as economically distressed, meaning they rank in the worst 10% of the nation on unemployment rate, per capita income, and poverty rate (ARC, 2017). Of importance, rural counties are more likely to be economically distressed compared with nonrural counties. In addition, college-going rates in the Appalachian region remain below the national average (ARC, 2017).

In light of these lower rates of postsecondary education, many high school students in rural Appalachia are likely to be PFGCSs. PFGCSs are high school students who would be the first in their families to pursue a college education. Many PFGCSs benefit from additional support for college-going because they are less likely to have had role models, such as relatives, family friends, or other community members, who attended college. Additionally, previous research indicates that PFGCSs, compared with their non-first-generation peers, tend to rate themselves lower academically and are more likely to endorse plans to enter the workforce directly after high school (Gibbons, Borders, Wiles, Stephan, & Davis, 2006). Furthermore, FGCSs demonstrate lower educational expectations and aspirations and are less likely to choose a STEMM major (Chen, 2005) than students whose parents attended college. Low-income FGCSs tend to have fewer and lower quality learning experiences in math/science and report lower confidence in academic performance than students whose parents went to college (e.g., Bloom, 2007). These unique characteristics may also negatively affect STEMM career interests.

Both FGCSs and women, in general, are underrepresented among those persisting in...

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