Q&A: Students Investigate the College Application Process for Mainers

Luisa LaSalle ’14 and Kaylee Wolfe ’15

Luisa LaSalle ’14 and Kaylee Wolfe ’15

If you’re a high school student from Maine, what’s it like to apply for college? That may depend on how educated your parents are, according to Luisa LaSalle ’14 and Kaylee Wolfe ’15.

This summer LaSalle and Wolfe gathered information from 30 college graduates who all went to public high school in Maine (recruited through the Mitchell Institute in Portland). Just over half – 17, to be exact – were first-generation college graduates.

LaSalle and Wolfe have been working under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Sociology Ingrid Nelson, with support from a Craig A. McEwan Summer Research Fellowship in the Social Sciences and a Gibbons Summer Research Program grant.

We asked them to tell us what they’ve learned so far.

BDS: What was the college application process like for these Mainers?

Luisa LaSalle: Their experiences tended to fall into two categories: a collaborative approach or student-driven approach. The major determinant was parent education. The students who had collaborative processes – working with parents to fill out applications, visit colleges and meet deadlines – usually had at least one parent who had gone to college. First-generation college students tended to have student-driven processes, where the student does pretty much all the work on their own.

Kaylee Wolfe: All the breakdown that comes through our data has been interesting on a personal level – I’m a first-generation student myself. My experience was pretty typical of the first-generation students in our sample. Most of these parents aren’t discouraging their kids from going to college – they just don’t have the tools to help.

What do you hope to add to the nationwide conversation about getting into college?

KW: Those categories we found are not already in the literature. Rural students and the college application process are both understudied areas; when you put the two together, we haven’t found any papers that look at this population in this particular part of their lives.

LL: We’re looking at Maine – the most rural U.S. state – because part of our argument is that coming from a rural area plays a special role in getting to college. Some papers have looked at college degree attainment among rural students, but our sample is unique because all of these people were successful in getting to to college.

How did you research this project?

LL: First, we re-listened to the interviews and edited the transcripts. Then came a lot of finding literature and reading. We typically work on our own and then we’ll collaborate and meet with our professor once every couple of days.

KW: The sociologists of yore would physically highlight and cut their transcripts line by line, paste the quotes onto cards and put them into boxes with categories like ‘information about family.’ We’re able to do that whole process now using this computer program called NVivo. It allows us to search through the massive amounts of data from 30-hour-and-a-half-long interviews by highlighting and coding it.

Did you run into anything you weren’t expecting?

KW: I didn’t realize how hard it would be to write this paper. During the school year, you barrel through deadline after deadline and you don’t always have the time to go back and edit. Knowing that it’s going to be read by a panel whose job it is to point out everything we missed makes you see a paper a little differently.

LL: For me, I knew the work going to be interesting but I didn’t realize I was going to enjoy it as much as I have. We can relate to the data because they’re talking about their college experiences, jobs, and where they live – a lot of people in the sample even went to Bowdoin.

What’s next on the horizon?

KW: I’m really excited about moving forward with this project. We’ve already submitted our paper to one conference, so hopefully we’ll get to present there. For the next paper, we will look at this same sample’s next step: the college experience.


  1. alan n. hall says:

    I was astonished to read that Maine is the most rural state. I know that Fort Kent is a long way from the N.H. border, but my college-day travels in the West influenced my belief that Montana or the Dakotas were more rural, at least the people are spread out more! Can anyone tell me where that statistic comes from? What constitutes “rural” to begin with? Population density? Number of cows or pine trees or cacti per square mile? ALAN N. HALL

  2. I agree. My husband and I are 1st generation college graduates. My husband went further and received his doctorate. Neither one of us received assistance with applying for colleges with our parents. I am also surprised to hear that Maine is the most rural state.

  3. Luisa LaSalle says:

    We were also surprised to find that Maine is so rural! Our rural statistics came from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) school locale classifications as well as data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Maine was named the most rural state in the nation in 2010. “Rural” areas are areas that are not classified as “urban”. According to an article in the Bangor Daily News, Maine has three urbanized areas-Portland, Bangor, and Lewiston, while the most rural counties are Piscataquis and Lincoln, where 100 percent of the population lives in rural areas.

    Read more here on the 2010 Census Data:


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