Re-Imagining the Community College Experience

Over this past weekend I gave a talk at the University of California All Campus Consortium On Research for Diversity annual meeting entitled “Re-Imagining the Community College Experience.” It touched on a forthcoming book chapter and some work in progress, both of which stem from my dissertation research on 24 women who have attended community college. Below is the text of my talk.

A recurring problem in the sociological research on community colleges, if not the main problem, is that large numbers of community college students aspire to bachelor’s degrees while relatively few attain them. The most recent figures reported by Brand, Pfeffer, and Goldrick-Rab (2014: 448) are that “more than 80 percent of entering students say they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only about 12 percent complete that degree within six years.” One approach to explaining this disparity has been to focus on student aspirations and how they intersect with the community college environment.

From this approach, community colleges have long appeared to be at the center of a culture and structure contradiction.

Burton Clark argued during the mid-20th century that the ideology of equal opportunity, popularly interpreted as unlimited access to college and manifested structurally in the open-access policies of community colleges, ran up against structural limits to opportunity for work that required a college degree. He argued that community colleges must necessarily “cool out,” or softly deny, the aspirations of poorly prepared and marginalized students to prevent psychological distress and social deviance. The cooling out process and the contradiction at the heart of this ambition management was central to the major sociological works on community colleges that followed such as Brint and Karabel’s The Diverted Dream and Dougherty’s The Contradictory College.

By the early-21st century the community college continued to be characterized by a culture-structure conflict but it had changed over the previous two decades. James Rosenbaum, W. Norton Grubb and others documented an ideology of college-for-all, which is characterized by the widespread belief that all students can and should attend college. Structurally, this took the form of a “hidden curriculum of transfer,” which consisted of stigma-free remediation, reduced barriers to transfer from vocational programs, and other practices that “warmed up” the hopes of disadvantaged students. While appearing to avoid the oppressive practices of the past, the college-for-all-community-college encouraged students to work less in high school and to delay recognition of more suitable pathways than bachelor’s degree attainment.

The relatively small literature on community colleges has swirled around warming up and cooling out. Interestingly, very few studies have actually inquired about student aspirations over time let alone their experiences in community college. Moreover, the cooling out and warming up framework distinguishes community college research from research on both K-12 and four-year institutions. This intellectual space reflects community colleges ambiguous location between secondary and four-year institutions. Yet there is a great deal to learn about the experiences of students from the broader education literature that can be usefully applied to community colleges.

In a forthcoming book chapter, I drew on four waves of interviews with 24 women attending community college to fill this gap in our understanding of community college students’ experiences and to situate community college literature more directly within the larger field of knowledge about education.

This longitudinal interview data allowed me to identify four distinct pathways through community college that can be explained using frameworks that are widely applied to secondary and university students. These are:

  1. The competing pathways approach, which argues that schools provide one cultural model of attainment among a range of competing images of success and available opportunities for disadvantaged students such as professional athletics, gangs, or family businesses
  2. The institutional agent approach, which argues that individuals who occupy high status positions can transmit or facilitate the transmission of resources to students such as distinct discourses, academic support, advice or guidance, and role modeling
  3. The status competition approach, which argues that students pursue postsecondary credentials in response to power imbalances between social groups and for access to particular occupations
  4. The figured world approach, which argues that colleges are sites where new self-conceptions and ways of acting can emerge and take hold through links between broadly shared discourses and personal experiences

This chapter not only shows the diversity and complexity of community college students’ experiences but shows how we can expand our analytical reach as researchers and find linkages between the experiences of students in all of our institutions of education.

This chapter focuses on four women. Over the course of three-and-a-half years, three transferred to four-year institutions and one left school to pursue an entrepreneurial pathway like her mother and father before her.

However, neither the warming up and cooling out framework nor the framework that I suggested capture the experience of many community college students. The vast majority of students do not transfer and, while many leave, they do not explicitly abandon their dream of attaining a bachelor’s degree. Instead, recent research indicates that it is most common for community college students’ aspirations to remain stable, or “hold steady,” over long periods, even when students have left school altogether. Despite the prevalence of holding steady, sociologists have yet to ask why students hold steady.

This is the question my current work attempts to answer. In addition to answering why students hold steady I want to explore how students hold steady.

If we think about aspirations as narratives, then aspirations emerge from both personal biography and collective beliefs about how lives should play out. From this perspective, aspirations are also products of social interaction and, as such, they must be believable to some extent—believable to both the person who aspires and the person who they express their aspirations to. For many students who hold steady, tremendous barriers to completion exist—up to and including never enrolling in college—and the requirement that narratives be believable reinforces the need to understand how they achieve this.

So why do students hold steady?

First, there is the jobs explanation. Clark noted, when he first proposed the cooling out process, that high status jobs increasingly required a college education. By the 1990s, Grubb and Lazerson referred to an “education gospel,” which stipulates that at least some college education is required for the knowledge-based, flexible jobs of the future. At the same time, the college-wage premium rose precipitously while wages for those without a college education stagnated or fell. Holding steady, then, may simply reflect a pragmatic response to a structural shift over the past sixty years. That is, young adults hold on to college aspirations because they see it as the only way to avoid low-wage labor or long-term unemployment.

The women in my study routinely made this calculation. For example, Rosa, a mother of two in her early twenties explained:

“In the real world, without you having an education you’re not gonna get anywhere. So there’s no point of just working your day to day job if it’s not gonna get you anywhere. I mean, nothing against people who work at McDonalds, but it’s like people can do so much better than that. I’ve been homeless. I don’t want that for myself or my child. So the only way out of all of that is getting an education and having a career for yourself.”

Describing a discussion with a college counselor, Patricia, a twenty-eight year-old black woman with a criminal record, recalled during the second interview, “I was adamant on trying to stay in school ‘cause if I leave here, what do I have? I’ve been looking for a job for almost two years.”

And, Carolyn, a 25 year-old white woman who had returned to school in her mid-twenties once her son was school age, said during the first interview, “I need to do something. I don’t want to work at Subway, which was my last job, and I don’t want to clean houses for the rest of my life. I’m tired of doing that,” adding, “it’s a bleak future cleaning houses for the rest of your life.”

However, I want to argue that holding steady is not simply, or only, a pragmatic response to economic structures. Just as the education gospel links individuals to jobs via college, I argue that an “ambition imperative” links the development of productive capacities to successful societies. According to the ambition imperative, ethical social membership includes aspirations for self-improvement and the virtuous pursuit of success. As such, community college students may claim moral status through college aspirations. In other words, they hold steady for virtue.

For example, Patricia reflected on her persistence after a decade of circling in-and-out of school saying, “I’m still in school, I’m still clean and sober, and not in trouble with the law, and still taking care of my beautiful baby boy.” Likewise, Rosa believed that persisting in school despite being a single mother reflected strength and determination, adding that most people “would have just stuck with the domestic work.”

For Margaret, being in college did not necessarily distinguish her from other poor women. She was a white single mother in her mid-twenties who had never held a job. Throughout the course of the study she lived with her grandmother, mother, uncle and daughter. None of the family worked, and they pieced together different sources of state support to make ends meet. Reflecting on her living situation she said, “I feel kind of like on the lower grade of people. I don’t have any money or anything and I feel kinda crappy because of it.” She said she had looked for work in the past but, for reasons she could not explain, she was never offered a job. Yet, college offered a pathway to a more virtuous lifestyle of self-reliance. She said, “I don’t like being in this situation but if I’m in this situation I’m gonna make the most of it and go to school so that one day I won’t have to be like this, like my mother. You know, she’s in this situation but she’s just sitting there waiting for life to hand her things and I don’t want to be like that.”

By the fourth interview she had received an associate’s degree but had not transferred, she admitted, because she lacked the self-esteem to make the transition to a four-year university even though she had the qualifications to do so. However, she was still taking a class at the community college because being out of school made her feel “useless.” Moreover, college allowed her to achieve some dignity and be a role model for daughter. She said,

“I’m not a crack addict or a prostitute or whatever. I go to school, I have a very high GPA, I’m a very good mother, I don’t engage in any bad things. I wasn’t raised with any morals, but I have a very strict way of thinking I should live. And I try to be a role model for my daughter.”

Holding steady meant that she held on to an identity that was opposite to categories of social deviance and immorality. Contrary to theories of ambition management that stipulated students needed to have their aspirations discouraged to avoid widespread deviant behavior, Margaret’s case suggests that high aspirations can be used by students to distance themselves from socially illegitimate ways of life.

So how does holding steady occur?

To return to Burton Clark, he argued that the open access structure of community colleges generated more promise for mobility than society could fulfill. And Rosenbaum and his colleagues argued that open access discouraged rigorous college preparation and drew in poorly prepared students.

From a holding steady perspective, however, open access maintains the possibility of achieving a college degree. Moreover, the structured pathways from community colleges to four-year universities and on into the workforce provide an institutionalized logic that students can use to formulate aspirations for socially-beneficial self-improvement. I want to end with an example.

Adele, a single Latina woman in her early-twenties, could not see herself in a “traditional family” and having a man in her life. She admitted that, “everyone in my family mostly is like a single parent, and so that’s kind of scary. But in terms of like a career, I can see that, I think that’s more manageable for me, even if I don’t know what that is yet I know that I see myself in a career as being successful.” This ability to see herself is largely a function of the semi-vocational structure of college. Adele was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in film and television, which involved classes that explored the various career trajectories available to students interested in the field. By contrast, she had few examples of two-parent families and so could not as easily imagine a future where she was in a traditional family. In other words, her narrative reflects the material provided by the institutional structures she is embedded in.

During the fourth interview, as she was nearing transfer to a four-year university, she noted that trouble at home had caused her to focus less on some of her goals, such as travelling. She said, “I guess a lot of things have just been really muted because of all that’s been going on in my family.” By contrast, she held steady to her goal of earning a bachelor’s degree, suggesting that, “it’s something stable I can hold on to, I think, because it’s a goal I can reach.” The institutional pathway provided by the higher education system gave her clear steps she could take as the rest of her life became more uncertain. College kept her positive and, she said, “looking forward to something, not dwelling on problems that I have to deal with. It’s something for me to, just, kind of relieve some stress and work toward that.” Like the women who could use the structural paths created by colleges to imagine attaining a career, Adele was able to organize her life to some extent around the institutionalized goals of transfer and degree attainment.

In conclusion, the culture-structure contradiction identified at the heart of cooling out and warming up approaches is significantly less contradictory when we look at students who hold steady. In fact, the structure of the community college makes it possible for students to narrate their lives according to the cultural imperative to aspire to a college education and high status career despite major obstacles or slow progress. And even as outcomes remain inequitable, the structure of the community college allows students to generate some moral equity in a society that increasingly makes college part of ethical social membership.


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