Date of Award

Fall 11-30-2016

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Educational Leadership


Sarah Mackenzie

Second Committee Member

Richard Ackerman

Third Committee Member

John Maddaus

Additional Committee Members

Catherine Biddle

Ian Mette


Dropping out of school has a negative impact on an individual’s life and a person’s ability to contribute to the country’s society and economy. Returning to schooling and obtaining a diploma or equivalent is fraught with obstacles. Many people try several times to complete the degree; fewer succeed. The plight of rural students including rural school returners is often overlooked because their problems are overshadowed by the problems of urban areas.

The purpose of this qualitative study, involving three extensive interviews of five rural school returners, was to build upon existing research on high school dropouts through the exploration of lived experiences of rural school returners. Such an in-depth focus highlights this understudied population. The lenses of rurality, resilience, and mattering guided the design of the study.

The findings of the study offer insight for educational leaders, educators, and policy makers to employ in their endeavors of supporting school returners. The study found that the rural context both motivates as well as challenges school returners. Long distances and inadequate services, family and work obligations, and low paying, dead-end jobs provided both the impetus and the impediment to school returning and completion. In addition, the study found that regret about their public school experiences helped to motivate the participants to return to schooling. Others have noted regret as a motivator because lost opportunity often engenders regret while education can open or reopen doors to opportunity.

The study found that gender impacts educational experiences in rural areas. Rural female students often report traditional gender roles and situations as challenges to their educational attainment. As other studies have found, women more often find they want to seek further education after finally gaining the high school credential. Finally, this study found that personal resilience and educational resilience factors, internal attributes, and mattering to others supported the participants in overcoming the challenges they faced as school returners. This finding adds to the literature on successful school returners because it describes the interplay of these factors noted in each participant’s story. Previous research presents these factors separately rather than in dynamic interaction with each other.