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January-February 2008

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Access Without Support is Not Opportunity

Donald, who describes himself as black, Indian, and Dominican, went to two high schools in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He liked the first school. It was challenging and the teachers were concerned about his welfare. But because of family problems, he left San Francisco and moved in with a foster family in Los Angeles. There he went to a school he describes as a “bad, bad school.” He didn’t learn anything and soon quit. Undeterred, he earned a GED and entered Cerritos Community College, living on his own at age 21 and determined to get a college degree.

Unfortunately, too many low-income students like Donald enter college academically under-prepared, and too few find the support they need to succeed in college. As a result, their rates of completing four-year degrees continue to lag behind those of more-affluent students.

Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that while an estimated 56 percent of high-income students who begin postsecondary education will earn their four-year degrees within six years, only about 26 percent of low-income students will do so. And the gap has not diminished in recent years—indeed it may have increased somewhat over the past decade. For too many low-income students, the open door of American higher education and the opportunity it provides has become a revolving door.

Why is this the case? The answer to this important question is not simple; there are many complex forces shaping the success of low-income students. But perhaps none is as important as academic preparation: Low-income students are more likely to begin higher education academically under-prepared than those from more-affluent backgrounds. Beginning higher education with fewer academic resources than their peers, they are less likely to complete their degree programs.

Beyond Access: Promoting Student Success with Learning Communities
What is to be done? As Cliff Adelman pointed out in a previous issue of Change (July/August, 2007), no long-term solution to the problem of retaining and graduating under-prepared low-income students is possible unless institutions find a way to address their academic needs. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that colleges thus far have struggled in their attempts to restructure existing programs to better serve them. But there are signs of change. One particularly promising effort is the adaptation of learning communities to the needs of these students.

With a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education and additional support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we carried out a systematic, multi-institutional, longitudinal four-year study of the impact of learning communities, and the collaborative pedagogy that underlies them, on the success of academically under-prepared, predominantly low-income students. The students were enrolled in 13 two-year and six four-year colleges in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington. These institutions were selected, with the help of an advisory board of national experts, from a sample of more than 40 institutions that we identified as having effective developmental learning-community programs.

In each of the 19 institutions, we sampled all students in the learning-community classrooms and a comparison group of students who took the same subjects and were as academically similar to the learning-community students as possible. Our final sample of 5,729 students consisted of 2,615 students in learning communities and 3,114 students in comparison classrooms.

On each campus, we surveyed both groups of students using a variant of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) to ascertain their patterns of academic and social engagement, perceptions, and academic plans. We used both institutional data files and data from the National Student Clearinghouse to track their performance over three years and their persistence over two years. The combined data were analyzed with cross-tabular and multivariate regression techniques to determine the independent effects of participation in a learning community on subsequent persistence, controlling for student attributes (e.g. gender, ethnicity, parents’ educational level). For three two-year and two four-year institutions we also employed case-study techniques and longitudinal interviews to learn how these students made sense of their experiences.

Cathy Engstrom is an associate professor of higher education and chair of the department of higher education at Syracuse University. Her recent work focuses on the experiences of under-prepared students, particularly low-income and immigrant students. Vincent Tinto is a Distinguished University Professor at Syracuse University and a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. He has written widely on student persistence and institutional policies, particularly those designed to promote the success of low-income students.

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