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Moving to and through community college: Postsecondary aspirations and divergent outcomes


Community college has always been an attractive choice for many from the perspective that it offers access to higher education without the constraints typical of more elite four-year institutions. But while its egalitarian mission offers potentially unlimited second chances, the reality of persistent low attainment rates--despite investments in new initiatives and interventions--brings us back to the question of how community colleges both promote and constrain opportunities for students.

To shed light on the viability of community college as an avenue to higher education, this study investigated the educational experiences of a group of students who transitioned directly from high school to community college in the fall of 2007. The design of the study employed multiple in-depth interviews with students over a twenty-month period. Forty youths from four high schools in two urban school districts in northern California were recruited and interviewed in the spring of 2007. Subsequent interviews were conducted over three semesters in community college. Information from informal communication with student participants and interviews with key administrators and staff at one community college district were used to contextualize formal student interviews. Together, these data revealed the opportunities and challenges a set of students experienced as they moved to and through community college.

The experiences of participants in this study show that the college pipeline leaks very quickly, with the largest portion of attrition occurring between the first and the second semester of enrollment. Three factors emerged as key explanations for the observed patterns of community college enrollment. The first factor encompasses the institutional features specific to high schools and community college, such as counseling and academic preparation/supports, that may or may not be adequate to the task of moving students forward. The second and third factors--a student's level of academic preparedness and a student's familial and life circumstances--are individual factors that can affect the student's performance and the availability of support as she progresses through college. The results of the study indicate that the notion of college preparedness ought to be expanded, given that students' capacity to respond to challenges in college were influenced not only by college guidance experienced in high school but also by their social frames of reference.

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