It’s cold in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And its economy, once built on forest and maple products, has faltered into today’s sparsely populated, economically disadvantaged region of the state. But neither stopped Suzanne Phillips, professor of psychology, from spending a year long sabbatical in 2012-2013 there. In fact, she felt right at home.
That’s because she was born there. As a first generation college student herself, Phillips wanted to merge scholarship interests as a community psychologist into a specific research project: rural populations, post-secondary education and first generation college students. So she settled into a borrowed office at White Mountains Community College, in the heart of Coos County just south of the Canadian border, and went to work.
“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.
She started by noticing how six of the seven campuses that comprise the Community College System of NH are clustered in the southern part of the state. White Mountains Community College, located three miles from downtown Berlin, is the only higher education institution in Coos County where 300-350 high school students graduate in a typical year.
Phillips gained access to government and college databases to determine how many go on to higher education. What she discovered 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, the state as a whole did not see a change in college matriculation rates and during this same period, other counties declined.
Why the change? “This’s still something of a mystery, but the timing suggests that recently launched programs to encourage middle- and high-school students to think of themselves as ‘college bound’ had an impact,” Phillips said. “I realized that creative efforts to reach younger students was making a difference. I also learned that the WMCC campus was functioning as a gateway into the world of higher education for Coos County high school graduates: with the experience and confidence gained by attending college on that small local commuter campus, students were able to transfer to four-year colleges and universities to further their studies.”
Phillips organized her findings into a number of high-tech maps and charts, which she has presented to many colleagues and higher education officials throughout the region. She’s also submitted her research to a variety of professional conferences.
“Having the extra semester to dive into my research and build relationships really made the difference,” she said. “It also meant that there are more research opportunities for Gordon students to work with my collaborators. The good news 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.”