Department of Educational Administration


First Advisor

Elizabeth Niehaus

Date of this Version

Spring 4-4-2018


Heinisch, B. (2018). Rural students’ sense of belonging at a large public university. Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska.


A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: Educational Studies (Educational Leadership and Higher Education), Under the Supervision of Professor Elizabeth Niehaus. Lincoln, Nebraska: April, 2018

Copyright (c) 2018 Benjamin P. Heinisch


This qualitative case study explored how undergraduate students from rural areas experience higher education environments and develop a sense of belonging at a large Midwestern public university. This study defined rural considering students’ hometown population size and density as well as each individual participant’s constructed reality of a rural identity (Crockett, Shanahan, & Jackson-Newsom, 2000). The following questions guided this study: (1) How does students’ identification with their rural background influence how they experience their college environment? (2) What do rural students see as key environmental factors affecting their sense of belonging? (3) Is the institution providing supportive environments for rural students and if so, how? Participants included 8 undergraduate rural students and 3 university administrators, all attending or associated with the institution identified as the instrumental case. Multiple data sources were collected at the institutional level and at the individual rural student level. Institutional level data included administrator responses, online public documents, and school newspaper articles. Individual level data incorporated a demographic questionnaire and two individual interviews utilizing artifact elicitation with each of the 8 rural student participants.

Data analysis and interpretation was aided by a conceptual model that included Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) ecological theory of human development, Strange and Banning’s (2015) four models of educational environments, and Strayhorn’s (2012) sense of belonging. Inductive and systematic first and second cycle coding with triangulation resulted in the emergence of three patterns regarding the intersection of rural life identity and college belonging: (1) rural students alienated by rural life embraced college life, (2) rural students that strongly identified with rural life were challenged to belong in college, (3) some students could identify with rural life and experience both positive and negative implications for belonging in college. Interpretation of the findings indicated the importance of rural students’ individual alienation or identification with rural life, subsequent congruence with the educational environment, and their ability to replace support structures from their rural community with new sub-communities in college, as being highly influential to their sense of belonging in college. Based on these findings, this study suggests implications for theory, practice, and research.

Advisor: Elizabeth Kathleen Niehaus