STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 04/22/2014

Into The Woods: Phillips' Sabbatical Explores The Dynamics Between Rural Poverty and Education

By Jo Kadlecek

It’s cold in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And its economy, once built on forest and maple products, has faltered in sparsely populated, economically disadvantaged regions of the state. But neither stopped Suzanne Phillips, professor of psychology, from spending a yearlong sabbatical there in 2012–2013. In fact, she felt right at home.

That’s because she was born there. A first-generation college student herself, Phillips, a community psychologist, did her sabbatical research on rural populations, their access to post-secondary education, and first-generation college students. She focused on young residents of Coos County (near the Canadian border) and a community college there.

“New Hampshire is a wealthy state, but the wealth is not distributed evenly,” she said. “I wanted to understand the impact poverty had on education, why people born in Coos County seemed to have less access to education, and what the implications of both were for the local quality of life.”
Most of New Hampshire’s seven community colleges are in the southern part of the state. White Mountains Community College (WMCC) is the only one in Coos County, where just 300 to 350 students graduate from high school in a typical year.

What Phillips discovered in online databases was startling, even for local educators she talked with: between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of new high school graduates in Coos County starting college jumped from 58 percent to 69 percent. By contrast, statewide there was no change, and in some counties, the percentage dropped.

Why the change? Phillips thinks creative efforts to encourage teens to think of themselves as “college bound” had an impact. She discovered, too, that WMCC was functioning as a gateway: in a year or two at that small commuter campus, students gained confidence and were able to transfer to four-year colleges and universities to further their studies. “The good news,” she said, “is that more first-generation college students are finding success (in northern NH) and that’s something that can potentially be replicated in other regions of the state, or across the country.”