Theses Doctoral

The Cultural Transition Into and Navigation of Higher Education for Rural Students from Poor and Working-class Backgrounds

McNamee, Ty Christopher

This study utilizes qualitative narrative inquiry methods to explore the cultural experiences in higher education of rural students from poor and working-class backgrounds. These explorations occurred through individually interviewing seven rural, poor and working-class student participants, conducting focus group interviews with all participants, and reading through journal entries written by each participant, all centered around their journeys to and through college.

Drawing upon cumulative disadvantage theory and definitions of and theory around culture across psychology, sociology, and anthropology, this study engaged a cumulative disadvantage, culture-based framework – intertwining cultural flexibility, cultural integration, and cultural capital and wealth – to explicate the higher education experiences of students who held the dual and compounding identities of being both rural and poor or working-class. Through doing so, this study addresses: 1) how rural, poor and working-class students culturally experience – both uniquely and collectively – higher education; 2) how, if at all, rural, poor and working-class students transition into and navigate higher education institutional cultures; and 3) how, if at all, such cultural experiences, transitions, and navigations play a role in those students’ higher education attainment.

This study’s findings included two components. First, a narrative was written about each student’s experience coming from their rural, poor and working-class family and community into and through higher education. These narratives offered unique stories about the students’ personal experiences in higher education, including their academic, co-curricular, social, and professional experiences. Second, paradigmatic analysis was conducted, highlighting shared themes across the narratives. Through explicating the narratives and themes through a cumulative disadvantage, culture-based framework, this study suggests that: 1) rural, poor and working-class students hold two disadvantaged identities and background factors of being both rural and poor or working-class, which are minoritized and marginalized by higher education institutions; 2) as students with these dual rural and poor and working-class identities and background factors experience, transition into, and navigate higher education, they traverse campus cultural contexts that feel different from and at odds with their rural, poor and working-class upbringings; 2) the cultural experiences for rural, poor and working-class students in college are complex, as these students engage in cultural flexibility and cultural integration, while also gaining cultural capital and utilizing cultural wealth; 3) such cultural processes can play a role in higher education attainment for rural, poor and working-class students, given that they utilize various cultural tools to find success in higher education all the way to completion of their degrees.

This study concludes with implications for theory, research, and practice and policy. In particular, this study contributes to cumulative disadvantage and cultural theory, as well as future research ideas around how to study rural, poor and working-class students in higher education and the cultural experiences of other minoritized and marginalized student populations. Regarding practice and policy, I note the importance of higher education practitioners and policymakers recognizing and valuing rurality and social class, communicating higher education norms and processes to rural students from poor and working-class backgrounds, continuing outreach and support programs for rural, poor and working-class students, creating and fostering community for this population, and acknowledging the compounding and cumulative nature of rurality, social class, and additional social identities.

Keywords: higher education, culture, cumulative disadvantage, rurality, social class, college attainment


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Organization and Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Drezner, Noah D.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
November 9, 2022