After Admission: From College Access to College Success
reviewed by Melinda Mechur Karp - December 03, 2007
Title: After Admission: From College Access to College Success
Author(s): James E. Rosenbaum, Regina Deil-Amen, and Ann E. Person
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, New York
ISBN: 0871547074, Pages: 268, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com
In After Admission: From College Access to College Success, James Rosenbaum, Regina Deil-Amen, and Ann Person argue that while community colleges have helped increase access to college, they have work to do in helping students actually earn postsecondary credentials. This is hardly novel. But the authors perform an important task in seeking to understand why this is the case. They examine the structure of community colleges in order to uncover the forces that may inadvertently discourage student success. In bringing an institutional lens to bear on the problem of low completion rates, the authors provide insight into this problem, while also offering hints of concrete actions that colleges can take to encourage higher rates of degree attainment.
The authors bring a two-fold approach to their study. First, they use mixed methods, employing analyses of national data, student survey data, and in-depth interview and field research data. This enables them to examine the behaviors of the various actors within the community college organizational structure. Second, the authors compare community colleges to institutions that serve similar students and have somewhat similar goals, but use alternate institutional structures and have higher success ratesprivate occupational colleges. Contrasting the structures and activities of these two types of organizations enables the authors to shed light on the ways that community colleges current organization may hinder student success.
The first chapter of the book introduces the study, and sets up the authors argument. Chapter Two describes the methodology and data. Chapter Three does an excellent job interrogating the thesis that community colleges cool out student aspirations. The authors show that, for a majority of students, attending a community college actually has the opposite effecttheir aspirations increase, not decrease, over time.
Chapter Four examines the consequences of warming up student aspirations by probing the hidden penalties of widespread remediation. The authors note that the need to bring students academic skills up to speed in a way that does not threaten their self-esteem leads community colleges to minimize the negative aspects of remedial education. The result is that students are uninformed about the number of credits they are earning and the amount of time it will realistically take for them to earn a degree.
Chapters Five and Six discuss college procedures related to student decision-making. Chapter Five examines the information community college students receive regarding academic and career planning, and Chapter Six explores other student services. The authors argue that the information channels in community colleges assume that students enter with some degree of savvy and are able to seek out useful information on their own; they establish that this is often not the case. As a result, students muddle through their college careers with inadequate guidance and assistance. In both chapters, the authors compare the advising and support structures at community colleges to those in private occupational colleges. In occupational colleges, these structures are centralized and prescriptive, and the authors argue that such structured support leads to higher completion rates.
Chapters Seven and Eight take a similar approach, but focus on the connection between college and the labor market. The authors describe community colleges haphazard approach to student career preparedness and job placement. They contrast this with the approach of the private colleges, in which labor market connections are well-organized and highly valued. The result, according to Rosenbaum and his colleagues, is that graduates of private occupational colleges are advantaged in the labor market as compared to community college graduates. In Chapter Nine, the authors take this argument a step further, arguing that the explicit links between private colleges and the labor market actually serve to improve their academic outcomes, as students increase their effort and confidence when they believe that classroom performance has long-term implications.
Chapter Ten examines the ways that community colleges assumption that their students have preexisting cultural capital disadvantages graduates in the job market. The authors compare community colleges laissez-faire attitude toward developing student social skills with private occupational colleges explicit teaching of these skills. Chapter Eleven offers conclusions and implications.
The book makes an important argument, and has the potential to contribute to the literature in significant ways. Its focus on institutional procedures and mechanisms, rather than just outcomes, is a key strength. The authors also do a very good job extending current theories of the community college, both with their reexamination of cooling out and with their extension of Brint and Karabels (1989) work examining the ways that community college faculty resist the occupational mission of community colleges and focus on transfer.
And yet, the book falls short of its promise. First, in attempting to compare two different types of institutions, the authors ignore the unique mission and mandate of the community college, and gloss over the complexity of this institution. They also end up making apples-to-oranges comparisons that undermine their argument. For example, the authors compare the graduation rates of occupational and community colleges. In doing so, however, they compare graduation rates from an institution that provides a limited number of program choices (occupational colleges) to those from an institution providing programs in a large number of fields (community colleges). A more apt comparison would be between occupational programs in community and occupational colleges.
Likewise, the student services they discuss are meant to meet the needs of all students enrolled in community colleges, regardless of their academic program. However, the data on which the authors base their conclusions are drawn solely from qualitative research conducted within occupational programs. Limiting the analysis to occupational programs is a defensible choice; the authors attempt to extrapolate the conclusions from this sub-set of college programs to the wider institution is less so.
My second criticism lies in the authors choice of methods, or rather their poor elucidation of which methods they use and why. The use of multiple methodologies and data sources should be a strength of this work. However, throughout the book, it is clear that different data sources are relied upon at different points; the authors do not, however, clarify which data they are referring to, or why they use the data they use to draw a given conclusion. This is confusing, to say the least. Moreover, the reader is left to take on faith that the authors made wise data-related choices. Given the inappropriate comparison discussed above, among other things, this faith is shaken.
Finally, many of the authors assertions are not backed up by evidence. For example, they discuss the ways that stigma-free remediation means that students do not understand the implications of their placement in remedial education. However, they offer no quotes from students saying as much. The authors also spend four chapters describing the ways that private occupational colleges structure relationships with the labor market in order to improve students employment outcomes. However, they offer no evidenceand acknowledge that they have no data indicatingthat graduates of private colleges actually have better outcomes than graduates of community colleges.
In sum, then, this book has great potential and raises important issues that are worthy of further study. Community colleges completion rates are too low, and it is important that scholars interrogate the reasons why this is the case. Colleges should be provided with concrete, research-based strategies for improving their student services. Unfortunately, the shaky assumptions and methodology in Beyond Admission mean that they will have to wait for these answers.
Brint, S., & Karabel, J. (1989). The diverted dream: Community colleges and the promise
of educational opportunity in America, 1900-1985. New York: Oxford University Press.