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The presidents' perspective of the rural community colleges' role in economic development: a grounded theory approach




Bigelow, Susan L., author
Kaminski, Karen, advisor
Davies, Timothy, advisor
Venneberg, Donald, committee member
Shields, Martin, committee member

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Some colleges have embraced an economic development role in order to benefit the economy in the community and the region both directly and indirectly. In order for rural communities to benefit from the community college in a significant way, the college leadership must adopt an economic development agenda. The dual processes of developing a commitment to rural communities and learning economic development skills as a college president or in preparation to serve as a college president are not well studied and represent a gap in the literature. The purpose of this qualitative study was to construct a substantive theory with a core category and related categories that provides an explanation for how presidents of tribal colleges and community colleges in rural areas come to understand economic development and how they act on that understanding. The general research question was "what is going on here" with presidents at the intersection of tribal and community colleges and their rural communities in the area of economic development. The single situation grounded theory was constructed from interviews with eight presidents and referrals from two experts. The presidents led tribal and community colleges that have been members of the Rural Community College Alliance, were "associates" or "tribal" colleges, and were located in communities of less than 50,000. RCCA member colleges considered for this study were small and medium enrollment community colleges in rural serving areas and tribal colleges located in rural areas. The theory's core category was embracing the economic development role which means adopting as a guiding principle doing what was required to make a lasting and measurable impact on the community and its economy. Critical to the contextual framework categories was the pronounced rural bias, affinity for tribal or community colleges, and personal humility of the presidents. The causal categories of motivated by personal values, understanding the economic development role, and motivated by the environment worked together in a process and led to embracing the economic development role. After embracing this role, the presidents acknowledged taking economic development actions or taking them on more robustly. Six high level groups of economic development actions led by these presidents were: developing leaders and leadership capacity; thinking and acting regionally; coordinating closely with industry in workforce development; being present throughout the service area; welcoming the community to the college facilities; and promoting healthy communities. It is possible this study will add to the field of leadership training for community college leaders and a better understanding of leadership in a rural setting. This theory may be useful to presidents who are asked to take on an economic development role, those who wish to hire a president who embraces this role, and professional associations that hope to mentor current and future presidents for tribal and community colleges in rural areas.


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community college
tribal college
rural development
economic development


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