Transitions to College: Lessons from the Disciplines
by William Trent, Margaret Terry Orr, Sheri Ranis & Jennifer Holdaway - 2007
Prior research on the challenges of college going and retention among adolescents today, particularly low-income, minority, and first-generation college-going youth, provide the context for this article.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study:
This article sets the stage for the special issue articles by framing the issue’s purpose and content. The purpose is to synthesize existing research and knowledge about the adolescent college transition from multiple disciplines and fields, in order to develop a more robust foundation for further research and policy development. The article also describes the knowledge development process used by the Social Science Research Council and its advisory committee to support field and discipline based literature reviews and to synthesize their implications over an 18 month period.
The article provides a summary of the articles presented in the special issue and a summary of the committee’s recommendations, as framed in a separate publication, Questions That Matter. It explains that the six discipline and field-based essays (history, demography, anthropology, sociology, economics, and higher education) presented in the special issue reflect a discussion of the organization of research in each field and characterizes the contributions of each field to our understanding of transitions. Together these are a rich collection of essays that map the state of the respective fields by identifying key topics and the research questions posed.
The authors conclude by drawing attention to two primary points: key elements of the challenge to improvements in research and persisting conceptual issues that challenge research, policy and practice.
In the fall of 2003, about 70 percent of high school completers entered college immediately following graduation, a rate that has been relatively consistent since 1997 (3NCES, 2005). That accounts for about 2.2 million public and private high school graduates each year, an increasing number of whom are first-generation college-goers. It does not include first-time college-goers who are beginning after a substantial stop-out, GED completers, or increasing numbers of young immigrants who are new college entrants.
Degree attainment lags considerably. By 2001, only 51 percent of all postsecondary educational students beginning in 19956 had completed any degree or certificate, and 14 percent were still enrolled. Completion rates vary widely by race/ethnicity, parents educational attainment, and family income (3SSRC, 2005). These disparities have become the focus of considerable research over the past 2030 years through a wide range of disciplines and applied fields, focusing both on students experiences and institutional behavior and related policy implications.
The human, economic and social capital invested in this transition, and in subsequent college completion, is enormous in individual, community, and institutional terms. Yet, persisting social and economic inequalities in the United States attributable to economic, racial, and gender disparities differentially shape the transition into and through postsecondary education for young people, limiting access and success in particular for poor and minority youth. Such inequalities occur in a complex terrain of historical, regional, and political differentiation in the United States. The demonstrable lack of access to and success in postsecondary education among underrepresented students in the United States has been persistent and problematic for very basic but deeply important reasons relating to individual and family attributes and conditions, institutional structures, and cultural and economic forces.
Three propositions, as outlined in our companion report, Questions That Matter, were foundational to our work: 1) higher education is crucial for the improvement of the social, economic, and political welfare of all Americans; 2) higher education is not serving large segments of the American population; and 3) research can identify problems, solutions, and conditions under which progress can take place to increase access and success in higher education.1 The problems of access have been studied from multiple social science disciplines and applied fields, each addressing both unique and overlapping explanations of the causes and consequences of different opportunities and preparation for college access and persistence. Future policy and institutional efforts to address these problems depend on integrated understandingswith both scholarly and practical originsof how postsecondary transitions work and influencing factors. Each social science discipline and applied field has a unique and valuable perspective to offer about the college-going process for students and the role and influences of their families, institutions, policies, and systemic interactions across all stages of the transition from high school to college. By reaching across disciplines and applied fields, the knowledge base on college access and success can be integrated to better understand the transition to college for all students and underrepresented students in particular, and to inform policy and practices.
Until now, however, such research has not been well synthesized to inform policies and practices that guide and support this critical transition period, or to frame further policy-relevant research. The Social Science Research Councils Transitions Project was designed to address this need. The six reviews presented here, as well as four others to be published elsewhere, and the policy brief, Questions That Matter, make an important contribution to the knowledge base and informs our understanding of this transition period, frames policy implications, and outlines areas for further research. These commissioned reviews provide the education field with an unusually comprehensive consideration of the state of research regarding college access and retention.
This journal issue presents six discipline and field reviews on what is known about that critical period in the college-going process. The field review essays included here are from anthropology (Koyama), demography (Maralani), economics (Long), higher education (Goldrick-Rab), history (Gelber), and sociology (Deil-Amen and Turley). In addition, Louie has crafted an overview essay that opens the volume and sets the stage for the ensuing reviews. This journal issues purpose, and the opportunity that these reviews present, is not simply to encourage further research on issues of transition. Rather, this work reflects a shared belief that persistent inquirythrough quality data, scholarship, and comprehensive understanding across multiple disciplines and fieldscan improve equality of opportunity in higher education through better policies and solutions.
GOALS OF TRANSITIONS PROJECT AND ESSAYS
The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) started its national project, Transitions to College: From Theory to Practice (Transitions Project) in October 2003, with support from the Lumina Foundation for Education.2 The projects goals were to examine and promote social science research focused on the extent to which conditions for opportunity and success are available to all American adolescents as they navigate the transition from secondary school to college and beyond. At the core of this effort was a focus on the opportunities available to underrepresented and economically disadvantaged populations in the United States.
The project brought together senior scholars (the Committee) across a range of disciplines and fields of study for within and cross-disciplinary research analyses, engaged young-in-career scholars from around the nation to conduct discipline-based literature reviews, and developed a research agenda for future research on college access and success for disadvantaged students.3 The project also created a Practitioner Advisory Group of higher education leaders who addressed the practical and policy implications of the research and helped to frame questions for future research directions.4
The primary research base for this project has been essay reviews of the extant peer-reviewed research on the transition to college for underserved youth in several disciplines and fields, six of which are presented in this journal issue. The disciplines were: anthropology, demography, economics, political science, sociology; the applied fields were education research K-12, education research, higher education, and law.5 In addition, reviews were done in history and a domain we termed fifth-sector research. Fifth-sector research is research from organizations that are not associated with government, business, journalism, or the academy. Each review was crafted by one or more of the young-in-career scholars who conducted research reviews and produced an essay describing the composition of research in that field and related references.
The distinguishing feature of the Transitions Project has been its focus on the educational experiences covering the last years of high school and the first years of postsecondary education. As critical as this period is, it has not been the beneficiary of the intense focus of research and scholarship that its importance would seem to dictate. The discontinuity of youth experience between secondary education and postsecondary education is reflected in how research has examined this transition, with the bulk of research focused at one educational level or the other, but not both. Moreover, biases exist in how this transition has been studied and on the effects of transition experiences that have been evaluated. For example, especially during the last two decades of school reform, it can be argued that the transition period begins with the critical point of engaging key gateway courses that largely shape a students ability to have optimal postsecondary choices at the completion of their high school years. This argument however, privileges a view of postsecondary schooling centered on four-year colleges with a BA or better as the eventual goal. Indeed, we find that much of the research focuses on this aspect of preparation for access to college or lack thereof and, in contrast, shifts to a focus on persistence and retention at the postsecondary educational level.
This project sought to offer a unique contribution by drawing together related research across disciplines and fields on transition experiences and clarifying high school-to-college transitions as its own field of study. This project also sought to identify, from extant research, gaps and opportunities for further research in this under-explored segment of the educational pipeline. Finally, it reaches beyond this to question historically narrow ways in which the field has been studied, particularly to raise questions about early developmental experiences in the college transition process and multiple postsecondary transitional experiences and educational outcomes.
THE REVIEW PROCESS
The project began by first addressing the question: How do we identify a knowledge base, defining what is to be included? SSRC convened two of its two advisory groups (scholars and practitioners) to advise on this project. The two groups agreed that the research reviews should be limited to peer-reviewed journals only over the 20-year period of 19842004. They agreed that the disciplines and fields to be covered would include: anthropology, demography, economics, education research (K-12), education research (higher education), history, human development, law, political science, and sociology. They narrowed the focus to youth transitions into and through initial college-going, leaving out adult college-going experiences and advanced educational experiences beyond the baccalaureate.
Finally, the scholars advisory group developed a common framework for each review. First, the reviews were to present the landscape of current research in each discipline, identifying gaps and surfacing issues surrounding transition and the questions scholars in their respective disciplines try to answer. Second, to facilitate the collation of information across fields and specialties, the scholars constructed their reviews around four themes: a) college preparation (academic and social preparation during the high school and, to a more limited extent, elementary and middle -school years); b) college access (who goes, where, and under what conditions including barriers to access); c) financing postsecondary education (costs and financial aid and other forms of monetary support), and d) retention and completion of postsecondary education (experiences and influences leading to degree completion).
The reviews also were to examine the literature in five dimensions: a) students from disadvantaged or underrepresented populations, defined as ethnic/racial/linguistic minorities; high poverty; new immigrants; locations in highly urban or rural areas; b) parents, families, and communities of these students; c) high schools and postsecondary institutions of all kinds, including community colleges, vocational programs, and all tiers of colleges and universities; d) policy and evaluation, including federal, state, regional, local, general public, or philanthropic policies geared toward college-going; and e) system-wide between the individual-institution-policy or system-level studies. One additional reviewer completed a macro-analysis of the 10 reviews, to integrate the perspectives, highlight core issues, and surface gaps in the fields.
THE COMMITTEES ROLE
SSRC used its scholars advisory committee to provide integrated input on the discipline and field reviews at three juncturesplanning, mid-course feedback on identified literature, and final essay drafts. Such feedback provided both discipline- and field-specific feedback as well as raised cross-discipline questions, implications, and guidance. The committee, therefore, was charged to think both about the major areas of past research and theory and about future directions to redefine issues related to youths higher education access and achievement that could then clarify and amplify alternatives for policy and practice. The committee, in turn, explored how to redefine higher education policy concepts in order to address core values like equity and accountability and the meaning of real access and opportunity into and through higher education. The committee grappled with the questions of how equality has been framed in public policy, and the implications of equality of opportunity in contrast to equality of outcomes for accountability and the organization of higher education.
The committee determined that it was important that the reviews identify the extent to which their reviewed scholarship represented the full spectrum of the research enterprise: theoretical work, data gathering, and empirical analysis. It was also important that these essays identify the extent of or the level of accumulated knowledge resident in the respective fields. Moreover, the committee wanted to determine how well the existing works related to the categories and dimensions given above and to policy and practice.
Still another set of questions posed for the reviewers was to identify the relative status of transition topics in the respective fields. That is, were topics central, or subsets of central questions, peripheral or perhaps even marginal? And the corollary question here was why certain questions were not getting answered. The committee also wanted a sense of the resources for research on transition topics utilized by the fields. Finally, the committee grappled with the implications of both past gaps in research and of shifting populations and structures that facilitate college-going and make up the American secondary and postsecondary education systems.
DISCIPLINE AND FIELD REVIEWS
The six discipline and field-based essays presented here reflect a discussion of the organization of research in each field and characterize the contributions of each field to our understanding of transitions. Together, these are a rich set of essays that map the state of the respective fields by identifying key topics and the research questions posed. These review essays evaluate the contributions of the selected disciplines, sub-disciplines and fields to our understanding of the adolescent transition into and through college. Finally, they frame within their discipline and field what is currently known, the gaps, and recommended directions. The essays review significant theories, models, methodologies, and findings as well as key research questions emanating from the fields.
The first article is Louies synthesis of the key facets of the multi-discipline knowledge base of how to expand the college pipeline. Drawing on the insights of the discipline and field contributors, she argues that existing research paradigms, while useful, are limited in speaking to why gaps exist, how they are experienced, and what can be done to reduce them. She provides future directions to better address this inquiry along substantive and methodological lines, by synthesizing central areas that have been under-examined across the disciplines. She sets forth an overall frame for future inquiry, proposing an integrative model that bridges domains and disciplines to tap into the multiple complexities in the transition to college that have so far gone uncaptured.
The reviews begin with Gelbers review of how college transitions have been addressed in the history of education and its implications for understanding contemporary access to college. He underscores historys focus on the broad structural forces affecting students, while shying away from policy implications. As he observes, much of historical research has focused on individual institutions, as well as the categories of race, gender, and class. He stresses that the historical research on womens access to college provides a lens for understanding the college-access experiences of present-day unrepresented populations. Also, his review shows the varied history of higher education institutions for different racial groups. For example, the historical research on the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their educational and economic benefits for the African-American community is in stark contrast to the negative impact of Native American schools and related cultural and political dilemmas for Native American youth and communities.
Maralanis article follows with a demographic perspective on college transition, and a synthesis of the studies published in the last 20 years in primary demography journals. He finds that the existing research can be grouped into those that examine the relationship between educational attainment and migration, fertility and family structures. The field, as he outlines, provides well-developed methods for studying the timing of school transitions, the process of educational attainment over the life course, and the changing contours of educational inequality across generations. He also stresses that the demographic perspective blends well with other approaches, and is well suited for the study of both initial transitions and reentry into higher education. As such, this perspective is well suited for policy-related research that targets barriers at different life-course stages.
The next discipline review of research is anthropology, in which Koyama provides an excellent framing of studies at the interface of anthropology and education. She elaborates on the structure of the field, noting its centering on inquiries into broader schooling experiences rather than examinations of singular dimensions of transitions to college. A very special contribution of this field as shown by Koyama is its richness in getting us deep into the complexity or messiness that is endemic in the college-going process. Understanding the multiple layers of negotiation and contestation that play out in the K-12 classrooms as well as in the different postsecondary settings is invaluable, especially in interrogating race, class, ethnicity, language, and immigrant contexts and factors. Most important, few works get us closer to the meaning of the role(s) of family than does the research in this field.
Next, Deil-Amen and Turley review the scholarly sociology works that deal directly or indirectly with adolescents transition to college and our understanding of the individual, institutional, and socio-structural components of the transition process. They demonstrate how the discipline interrogates the relationship between schools and society and tends to highlight the fundamental components of stratification mechanisms that facilitate the social reproduction of existing societal inequalities. Their article reveals that the sociology literature indicates that many individual, family, institutional, and system-wide factors simultaneously affect a students ability to prepare, apply, enroll, finance, and graduate from college. But the literature is unevenly distributed across these themes, focusing most on college preparation and quantitative investigations of student attributes on school success and progress on to college. They similarly frame the sociological literature that focuses on institutional characteristics, particularly high school tracking, community colleges, and the cultural context of schooling, and the major conceptual contributions such as social capital, cultural capital, tracking, and social and academic integration to our understanding of the college preparation, access, transition, and persistence process.
Longs comprehensive review of the economics and education literature on college transitions follows, focusing on the work of economists and others on the transition of students to college and the influence of price and financial aid. She groups the economic research into three areas: the college decision-making process; the impact of financial aid and price; and factors that influence persistence and degree attainment, particularly policy-related influences. This field, more than others, has been able to approximate quasi-experimental designs such as natural experiments and aims to establish causal relationships rather than the correlation of trends or patterns, by using complex estimation techniques involving large samples of quantitative data for their analysis. She also shows the fields focus on the role of finances, trends in college costs, and how various types of financial aid affect college enrollment and choice. She concludes by framing the need for further research on college finance, particularly as it affects enrollment among low-income and underrepresented groups.
The final article by Goldrick-Rab synthesizes the higher education research on college transition. According to Goldrick-Rab, this field focuses primarily on inequities in college participation and completion, the relative importance of high school preparation, and the utility of financial aid in promoting enrollment. As she underscores, the fields strongest conceptual emphasis is on theoretical models of student retention, and the research on transitions to college, including different postsecondary pathways and college outcomes. This large body of research demonstrates that better high school preparation leads to greater levels of college access, and that tracking in high school, academic coursework, and social and financial preparation are particularly strong predictors of both college entry and subsequent performance. The higher education research on college access reveals changing trends in both who is going to college and where they are going, into what has become a broadly differentiated system, with continued disparities in rates of college entry based on race and social class. Higher education research has also investigated college persistence, and has yielded refined measures of college completion and dropout, improved understanding of racial disparities in graduation rates, and expanded upon influential theories of student retention, particularly for nontraditional students. The primary limitation in this field is its focus on traditional students attending four-year institutions and methodological flaws in the assessment of higher education institutional effects.
There are several limitations to these reviews as framing research and understanding of college transitions. First, the college transition in this project was defined primarily as high school to first postsecondary degree completion among disadvantaged and underrepresented American youth. Thus, these essays give priority to access, retention, and success in the first degree or certificate and do not include the K-12 academic experience or other post-degree experiences. College-readiness and the college-going experiences extend beyond the boundaries that were established.
Second, the essays are over-weighted in their attention to four-year, traditional college-entry populations, and pay considerably less attention to the tiers of institutions that are available to todays students, reflecting the nature of prior research. Such a limitation cuts across the discipline and field essays which commonly point to a need for future research that gives attention to the other tiers. Third, there is also a not-so-subtle implied hierarchy of merit in most studies which presumes a definition of success that focuses on the achievement of the four-year bachelors degree. This reflects in part a focus on educational inequality which necessarily examines more privileged outcomes. But, this nonetheless leads to the under-conceptualization of alternative measures of postsecondary achievement and success.
The reviews, in reflecting existing research in the field, have other limitations. The literature is overly focused on the college as the unit of institution as opposed to departments and programs within these units. The literature is thin on variations in consideration of traditional-age college-going versus adult and lifelong learners. Finally, the committee imposed no quality standard for inclusion in the reviews. The reviews were not undertaken as systematic or meta-analytic forms of literature review as this would have eliminated large amounts of past work and large percentages of some fields output.
IMPLICATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
The review essays presented here offer a valuable and succinct statement about the status of research on college transitions. Louies opening overview essay has framed and captured the key findings from the essays and provided a synthesis of the insights generated by the reviews. A signal contribution in her essay is her articulated integrated program of research, drawn principally from the Goldrick-Rab review, which has a life-course structure and is strong in its emphasis on the utilization of quantitative analyses. The recommendation is intended to foster future explanatory researchunderstanding causalityto investigate the factors that have already been shown to be correlates of college-going and college completion. We believe the fields are well-positioned to undertake such research, particularly as guided by the multidisciplinary findings presented here.
For further implications, we draw attention to two primary points: key elements of the challenge to improvements in research, and persisting conceptual issues that challenge research, policy, and practice. Goldrick-Rab and Louie argue for stronger and broader use of quantitative analyses in research on transitions and their work elaborates that need. We underscore that call. At the same time, it is important to add that there remain several fuzzy areas that will challenge our ability to get the measurement task right. Briefly stated, strong qualitative work will be needed to solidify our thinking and understanding about core indicators that can be queried in survey research. For example, while we know much about returns on investments, and while we are well advised by current thinking about social and cultural capital, we still do not have a firm handle on opportunity costs, those costs associated with students assessments of their roles and status within families and communities that make existing aideven ample aidinadequate or insufficient for affording college. Studies on families and students notions of affordability could greatly enhance our framing of opportunity costs.
A second major hurdle for research on transitions is the ability to track students from school entry through one or more higher education institutions to mobility into the workplace. To do so in the best fashion requires a single common identifier for every student. Several states have developed these identifiers, but we are far from having the range of states that will support the quality of research envisioned in the integrative model set forth in these essays.
On the matter of persisting conceptual issues, we mention two here: the desegregation-integration conflation, and the need for a more nuanced conceptualization of access. There is in our broader discourse and in the language-use patterns in this research, a tendency to conflate desegregation to mean the same thing as integration. It has the effect of underestimating the continuing process of building an integrated community. In short, our conflation in this way reduces the project of integration to simply assuring the numbers across the different categories or simply desegregating the setting. In this instance, desegregation is a necessary precursor to beginning the process of securing an integrated classroom, dormitory, or campus, but it is not sufficient. Furthermore, it is not likely that integration assumes an endpoint but rather a condition that is attained and maintained and likely fluctuates. We need research that informs us about the process of integration. We need better conceptualization and better measurement.
The committee was concerned that we find in these reviews a fairly narrow conceptualization of access. It argued that our concepts of access must be more nuanced in order to capture what might be referred to as second-generation aspects of access. For example, access should include the research on programmatic efforts to secure a sense of belonging or what might be called psychological access to the campus for students who are first-generation college-goers or for students who are members of underrepresented communities on those campuses. Admission and financial aid, as central and important as they are, are but the initial steps. They are necessary but not sufficient to determine access that leads to the preferred outcomes. A similar case can be made for the persisting gender and racial identifiability of majors. Women, for example, have achieved parity in enrollment but we still see strong persistence of patterns of stratification across majors within colleges and universities.
It is the committees firm belief that good research and scholarship on the dynamics of college transitions, particularly for unrepresented groups and across a changing higher education landscape, is critical for improving higher education access and persistence. This set of reviews is a first step to defining this area more clearly as a field of study and outlining existing perspectives, methodological approaches, and lines of inquiry in each discipline and field, as well as gaps and conflicts therein. As shown here, the various disciplines provide unique conceptualizations and methodologies. Much work is still needed to address gaps in what is researched and how. The marriage of these disciplines and applied fields of study, as well as better use of mixed-methods researchdrawing on both qualitative and quantitative research methods within studiesinto forming a more integrated inquiry on college transitions is essential for understanding the student and institutional problems that plague the transition into and through college, the development of solutions, and understanding how and in what ways these work.
In our related report, Questions That Matter, we outline a new research agenda and a series of research imperatives to guide future work. These imperatives are: (1) to establish better classifications and conceptualizations of contemporary postsecondary education; (2) to incorporate powerful research designs, mixed methods, and comprehensive data for more large-scale studies and demonstration and evaluation projects; (3) to examine racial, class, ethnic, gender, and special population classifications for inter- and intra-group comparisons; (4) to incorporate systems perspectives; and (5) to improve communication and dissemination of research findings through more active collaboration with policy-makers and the field at large. It is our intent that these reviews set the stage for such future work as its own field of study.
1 Questions that Matter is a product of the Social Science Research Councils national Transitions to College Project. It presents a brief overview of the recent research landscape and an agenda for future research that focuses on pressing questions in the area of transitions to college and postsecondary success. It encourages collaboration among research communities, policy-makers and practitioners to advance research methodology and pursue critical issues on preparation, access, retention, and finance. The report is available at www.edtransitions.ssrc.org.
2 The Social Science Research Council, an independent, non-profit organization founded in 1923, advances knowledge for the public good. It leads innovation, builds interdisciplinary networks, and focuses research on important public issues. This project is supported by Lumina Foundation for Education.
3 The Research Committee members were Kevin Dougherty, Columbia University; Luis Fraga, Stanford University; Margaret Gibson, UC-Santa Cruz; Patricia King, University of Michigan; Barbara Lee, Rutgers University; Jamie Merisotis, Institute for Higher Education Policy; David Mustard, University of Georgia; Michael Nettles, Educational Testing Service; Terry Orr, Bank Street College; Julie Reuben, Harvard University; Barbara Schneider, Michigan State University; Claude Steele, Stanford University; Vince Tinto, Syracuse University; and William Trent, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champagne.
4 The Practitioner Advisory Group included Jacquelyn Belcher, Georgia Perimeter College; Gordon Davies, Collaborative for Postsecondary Education Policy; Alfred Herrera, UCLA; and Alice Ilchman, Social Science Research Council.
5 The Committee and Project Director were not successful in obtaining a review of the work on transitions contributed by scholars working in the Human Development tradition.
National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) (2006). Condition of education 2006. Washington, D.C. Retrieved July 11, 2006, from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2006/section3/indicator29.asp
Social Science Research Council (2005). Questions that matter. New York: Author. http://edtransitions.ssrc.org