Researching Up: Triangulating Qualitative Research To Influence the Public Debate of “On-Time” College Graduation
by Tim McCormack, Emily Schnee & Jason VanOra — 2014
Background: The field of higher education abounds with qualitative research aimed at highlighting the needs, struggles, strengths, and motivations of academically struggling students. However, because of the small-scale nature of these studies, they rarely enter the public debate or impact institutional policy concerning access, remediation, academic standards, and student literacy. Recently, educational researchers have called for qualitative researchers to “power up” their data by conducting meta-analyses that compare, combine, and aggregate findings across individual qualitative studies.
Purpose/Objectives: This study pilots a qualitative meta-analysis of three existing, small-scale qualitative studies in education to illustrate the potential of cross-case analyses to build a more influential knowledge base. The findings of the meta-analysis contest the notion that “time-to-degree” is a valid marker of a student’s success in college. The article also offers a critique of the meta-analysis process and points to possibilities and challenges for other researchers to carry out similar cross-case studies.
Research Design: This qualitative meta-analysis of academically at-risk college students from three campuses of the City University of New York (CUNY) employs a form of cross-case research based in the constructionist approach, which generates data-based evidence in a narrative form and forges connections among different disciplines and data collected using a variety of ethnographic methodologies (interviewing, observation, textual analysis). Following a thematic analysis of each individual study, this meta-analysis follows the general tenets of grounded theory to code for the most frequent, emergent themes, or organizing principles across the studies. The researchers further focused on a single overarching theme (contesting “on time” graduation as a marker of academic success) to pilot in the cross-case analysis.
Conclusions/Recommendations: This meta-analysis study contests time-to-degree as a valid criterion for evaluating students’ academic success in college. The findings emphasize the importance of evaluating the progress of academically at-risk students within a demographic, social-cultural and institutional context. Factors such as work and class status, parenting and family issues, as well as mental and social health challenges can significantly impede students’ capacity to graduate within traditional two-year or four-year time frames. The pilot meta-analysis provides a model for other small-scale qualitative researchers to engage in coordinated cross-case analyses as a means of making their research more robust and generalizable. Ultimately, the authors claim that qualitative researchers within higher education can use meta-analyses to power up small-scale studies to impact institutional policies and academic practice. They conclude that researchers should find ways to “go public” with their data, so that they may have a greater impact on the policies affecting students and institutions.
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