Background/Context: In recent years, college attendance has become a universal aspiration. These rising ambitions have been attributed to the “college-for-all” norm, which encourages all students to aim for college attendance; however, not all students are prepared for the college application process or college-level work.
Research Questions: This research examines how students interpret the pressure to attend college, particularly four-year schools, when not all students have the same resources needed to negotiate the college process. The study focused on the following questions: What are students’ future educational and work aspirations? Is the college-for-all culture salient for them, and if so, how do they interpret it within the specific context of their high schools? How do they reconcile the pressure to attend college with a lack of economic resources, college knowledge, and college preparation?
Research Design: Qualitative methods were used to examine how students experienced the college-for-all norm and how this affected their college application behaviors and decisions. Semistructured interviews with 89 juniors and seniors were conducted across two racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools, and a subsample of students was followed over time to see how aspirations and plans changed and evolved. School counselors and other school faculty were also interviewed. Observations were conducted at the schools over two years, and a short survey was administered to students in the sample.
Findings/Results: The findings indicate that the “college-for-all” norm was interpreted as “four-year college-for-all” in the two high schools, contributing to the development of a stigma surrounding community college attendance. Less advantaged students displayed just as high aspirations as their more advantaged peers but were forced to deal with the community college stigma to a greater degree. Students developed a number of stigma management strategies that varied by race, gender, and class.
Conclusion/Recommendations: Social structures and inequalities can be reproduced by stigmatizing processes that tend to affect those who lack power and social resources the most. These social structures influence the ways in which people manage stigma, leading to multiple strategies that can both reify and question that stigma. The community college stigma can be problematic if students avoid such schools in favor of expensive four-year colleges that they may not be academically prepared for. Understanding the pressure students feel to attend four-year schools may help school counselors and teachers present alternatives to students in more positive ways and encourage schools to focus more on adequate college preparation, along with college encouragement.