Background/Context: Sociologists of education have documented community college students’ high postsecondary aspirations and low persistence and college completion rates. Recent research suggests that community colleges can improve student outcomes by developing structural reforms: streamlining curricula, expanding vocational programs, and improving advising. The emphasis on structural reform overlooks the ways in which community college students—who are disproportionately disadvantaged—are constrained from benefiting from even the most progressive structural reforms. This research builds on structural models by examining both the conditions and constraints under which students endeavor to succeed in the community college.
Research Question: The research questions guiding this analysis are: (a) What keeps students from moving in smooth and uninterrupted ways through community college? (b) Do structural reform efforts alone make sense for community college students in general and a more diverse student body in particular?
Research Design: This study draws on in-depth interviews with 45 community college students at two California community colleges. Students represent a range of racial/ethnic groups, ages, and traditional and nontraditional backgrounds.
Findings/Results: The findings revealed that forms of institutional instability identified in previous research interact with unpredictability in students’ lives, leading students to engage in “security work” (Cooper, 2014) intended to accommodate their educations to precarious circumstances. Students engage in security work across two dimensions: managing income flow (including paid work and financial aid) and managing care of families, food, housing, and transportation.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings revealed a feedback loop between precarity in community colleges and precarity in students’ lives. This article contributes to theories of student persistence by arguing that the framework of precarity importantly complements structural explanations for student outcomes in community colleges.