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Educated People: Narratives of Ambition and Failure among Poor and Working-Class Young Adult Women in Community College


The role of higher education in the lives of individuals and the course of society is greater today than at any point in the past. Postsecondary credentials are required for many professions, and economies, from the local to the national, rely on colleges and universities to provide skilled labor. Higher education also gives access to socially-recognized, highly-valued identities. In this dissertation, I examine the meaning of higher education in the lives of 23 poor and working-class young adult women attending community college as they pursue social mobility and places as valued members of society. I examine the narratives that they tell and re-tell through four waves of life history interviews over a three-and-a-half year period from fall 2010 to spring 2014. By focusing on poor and working-class women in community college, I look at those students who face some of the greatest obstacles and least possibilities of attaining their degrees. At the same time, the consequences of failure, both socioeconomically and culturally, are especially severe for poor and working-class women. I show how the community college functions as a narrative hub that ties together broad cultural beliefs, personal biography, and institutionally-structured life stories. When the women in this study experienced delayed or blocked progress toward college and career attainment, they either held steady to their aspirations or engaged in a process of narrative revision. They did so not only out of a pragmatic pursuit of social mobility but also as a way to fulfill a cultural imperative to be ambitious. I argue that the ability of poor and working-class women to display ambition is shaped by the institutional resources they have access to. The community college’s open access structure and vocational character make ambitious storytelling possible, even when students make little or no progress toward completion. Outside of college, disadvantaged women may turn to institutions that allow for ambitious practices of self-improvement, such as religion or sport, or allow them to care for others, such as the family. Ultimately, this dissertation shows that higher education is as much a source of meaning and virtue as social mobility in today’s society.

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