In the current global economy, higher education is critical for gaining and keeping living-wage jobs. The need for a college-educated labor force has increased interest among youth in pursuing higher education (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Despite these demands, the United States has struggled to effectively increase college completion rates, particularly among low-income and first-generation college students. Dual-enrollment programs, in which students are concurrently enrolled in high school and college, are one example of education interventions designed to increase college enrollment and completion.
Applying life course (Elder, 1998; Settersten, 2007) and possible selves theory (Markus & Nurius, 1986) frameworks, the present study explores how an education intervention program influences rural youth identity development. Specifically, the research questions were: (a) What benefits do students perceive themselves to gain as they participate in dual-enrollment programs? (b) How does the perceived significance of these benefits vary based on socioeconomic status, geography, and gender? Participants in this study (N = 17) were students in a dual-enrollment partnership between a local community college and three area high schools. Via focus groups, students from these high schools were invited to share their experiences as high school students taking classes at their local community college. Particular attention was paid to how youth incorporate the college experience into a vision of a possible self. Students reflected on their motivation for participating in the program, whether and how they perceived it to be a turning point in their lives, and the importance of this opportunity at this particular juncture in life. All students reported that a benefit of the dual-enrollment program was free college tuition, which enabled them to gain knowledge about the expectations and skills associated with being a college student and expand their sense of possible selves for the future. However, the significance of the free college tuition was interpreted differently based on household SES, geography, and gender. Students from low SES households, students from more rural communities, and female students perceived a higher degree of personal gain and increased opportunities for the future based on their participation in the program. The findings from this study may be helpful in informing education interventions to increase college enrollment for underrepresented student groups and in guiding policies to increase the affordability of college for economically vulnerable students.