African-American and Latino Conceptualizations of the Role and Value of Community Colleges: Results from a Study of High School Students and Counselors
Outcalt, Charles L., Tobolowsky, Barbara, McDonough, Patricia M., Academic Exchange Quarterly
Both national political contexts and more localized patterns of educational access make studying the role of community colleges in the educational pathways of California's African American and Latino communities vital for those interested in equity within higher education. Community colleges play a disproportionately large role in the educational pathways of Latino and African American students. Nationally, students under-represented in higher education in general are over-represented in community colleges. Although community colleges enroll only 39% of all students in higher education, they enroll nearly half of all minority students. However, compared to their White counterparts, disproportionately fewer African American and Latino students use the community colleges to transfer to four-year institutions (Cohen and Brawer, 1996). At the same time, recent changes in admissions policies that restrict access to four-year institutions for minority students, especially in California, Florida, Washington State, and those areas affected by the Hopwood decision, further raise the importance of community colleges as potential bridges to the baccalaureate for members of under-represented communities.
National enrollment patterns hold true within California, where both African Americans and Latinos constitute a significantly higher proportion of community college enrollments than their presence in the general population would suggest. Orfield's 1988 study of college access on the part of under-represented students in the Los Angeles basin remains a highly informative examination of the college-going experience of African American and Latinos in southern California (Orfield, 1988). Orfield found significant differences in the college-going patterns of Los Angeles area students. While 70% of African Americans and 73% of Latinos attended community colleges, only 63% of Whites and 54% of Asian Americans did so. Success rates (as measured by the obtaining of the Associates degree and transfer to four-year institutions) differed markedly as well, with precipitous drops in the number of Latino and African American students completing community college, as measured by the above indicators, between 1976 and 1985. Transfer figures reveal a similar story: in 1984, 3.3% of community college transfers to the University of California system were African American, and 9.6% were Latino (Orfield, 1988). Clearly, community colleges play a vital yet uncertain role in the educational careers of African Americans and Latinos both nationally and in the Los Angeles area.
For some educational theorists and researchers, community colleges are an essential bridge between high school and the rewards of post-secondary education, especially for students often under-represented in four-year colleges and universities (Cohen and Brawer, 1996). For others, community colleges serve as a detour at best and as a dead end at worst for the educational plans of under-represented groups (Clark 1960, Brint and Karabel, 1989). The current study, which examines the perceptions of community colleges held by a selected group of Los Angeles area African American and Latino high school students and their counselors, attempts to contextualize the debate on the utility of community colleges for minority students. It is our hope that the current study, by offering an in-depth examination of the attitudes of stakeholders in California's higher education system, will yield new insights on the complicated process of college-going on the part of African American and Latino students.
Theoretical Framework and Research Questions
Pierre Bourdieu's theories offer an integrated framework for understanding how rational, thinking, and goal-directed individuals pursue their interests yet manage to create and recreate social structures. Bourdieu's concepts of cultural capital, habitus, and field analysis can be used to illuminate the role of community colleges for under-represented students in their social mobility. Each of these concepts can separately increase our understanding of student perception and action, while taken together, these constructs offer powerful mechanisms for interpreting not only recent research but also the complex relationship between higher education segments in California and under-represented students' educational plans and pathways.
Bourdieu's work is based on an economics of exchange in which people struggle constantly for position, which depends on accumulating, monopolizing, and converting the many forms of capital--economic, symbolic, cultural, and social. He focuses heavily on the stratifications of the system of higher education because schools reproduce and legitimate the class structure by transforming social distinctions into educational distinctions, which are then socially constructed as distinctions of merit (Bourdieu, 1977).
Cultural Capital and Community Colleges
Capital can be an object or an attribute, possession, or quality of a person, which is exchanged for goods, services, or esteem. Cultural capital transforms aspirations into more valued educational credentials which then supplement or substitute for the transmission of economic capital (Bourdieu, 1977). Individuals' cultural capital leads them to have clear investment strategies of how much and what kind of schooling they or their children should have, although individuals' differing social locations lead them to differing investment strategies. Parents with high cultural capital attempt to secure for their children as prestigious a college education as possible because they believe it will pay off in later job success and social status. Parents with low cultural capital often play out their hopes and dreams for their child's future against compelling realities of financial need, job alternatives, and/or less expensive or more expeditious educational credentials with tighter vocational linkages.
Cultural capital is a symbolic good which is of no intrinsic value other than using, manipulating, and investing it for socially valued and difficult to secure purposes and resources. For Bourdieu, the educational system is a complex means of ensuring the transmission of economic capital from one generation to the next. Members of dominant classes convert their economic capital into cultural capital, which can, in turn, be converted into educational credentials in a merit-based system, which then is converted back into economic capital for the use of the next generation.
Cultural capital is also the widely shared attitudes, preferences, and credentials used for social and cultural exclusion (Lamont and Lareau, 1988). The research on community colleges often has been split between those who view them as enhancing an individual's upward economic mobility, while others view them as blunting aspirations by substituting the illusion of progress for its reality. Our first research questions derive from the literature on the role of educational systems in general and community colleges in particular in transmitting cultural capital: Do high school students and their counselors have college knowledge cultural capital? How do high school students and their counselors understand the value of attending community colleges?
The Role of Habitus in Students' Perceptions and Use of Community Colleges
Habitus is the use of cultural capital within specific social contexts. It is a social-class-based durable and transposable set of subjective perceptions, thoughts, appreciations, and actions that individuals acquire from their immediate environment that 1) are time and context specific; 2) are shared by members of the same social class or group; 3) frame individual aspirations, predispositions, and …
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Publication information: Article title: African-American and Latino Conceptualizations of the Role and Value of Community Colleges: Results from a Study of High School Students and Counselors. Contributors: Outcalt, Charles L. - Author, Tobolowsky, Barbara - Author, McDonough, Patricia M. - Author. Journal title: Academic Exchange Quarterly. Volume: 4. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2000. Page number: 102. © 2007 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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