Context/Background: Currently, chances for English learners (ELs) to reach higher education in the United States are slim. Almost half of ELs do not attend postsecondary education (PSE), and access to four-year college is particularly limited, but we do not exactly know why.
Purpose: To examine what inhibits ELsí four-year-college access in the United States, Bourdieuís notion of habitus and a related concept of institutional habitus were used as the theoretical framework.
Research Design: A longitudinal, ethnographic investigation. The study tracked the college choice experiences of two high-performing ELs who nonetheless elected to attend a local community college without applying to a single four-year institution. Data consist of interviews with the students and key staff members, classroom observations, and relevant documents.
Data Analysis: The data on each EL were first qualitatively analyzed to create an overall picture of her college trajectory (within-case analysis); the cases were then compared with one another to identify common barriers to their college access (cross-case analysis). Data segments related to the schoolís institutional habitus and the studentsí individual habitus were extracted and coded, and patterns of the interplay between the two were identified.
Results: Three factors inhibiting ELsí four-year college access were identified: (a) limited access to advanced-level college preparatory courses; (b) underdeveloped college knowledge to effectively navigate college planning and application; and (c) linguistic insecurity about their English proficiency. The schoolís institutional habitus highlighted ELsí linguistic deficits and inclined educators to view high-performing ELs as community college bound. The students themselves internalized the deficit orientation and came to view community college as the only possible college choice for them.
Conclusions: A fundamental reexamination of the deficit orientation to ELsí linguistic and academic capabilities is necessary. ELs need to be placed in advanced college preparatory courses commensurate with their abilities and provided with regular, frequent, and accessible college guidance.