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Breaking Through the Access Barrier: How Academic Capital Formation Can Improve Policy in Higher Education

reviewed by Pamela Petrease Felder & Timothy Shanahan - November 16, 2012

coverTitle: Breaking Through the Access Barrier: How Academic Capital Formation Can Improve Policy in Higher Education
Author(s): Edward P. St. John, Shouping Hu, and Amy S. Fisher
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415800331, Pages: 296, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

In Breaking Through the Access Barrier: How Academic Capital Formation can Improve Policy in Higher Education Edward P. St. John, Shouping Hu and Amy Fisher set out to reframe the discussion about polices aimed at increasing access to college for first generation and low income students.  In addition to this text testing the boundaries about why reframing the discussion is important, it raises questions about why new perspectives about access policies should be considered.  Nine chapters address major college access themes, including academic preparation, transition into college and learning environments that facilitate engaged learning in the effort to strengthen retention. However, the authors’ emphasis on academic capital formation and the role of family and community engagement lends refreshing insight to policy recommendations and implications for future research.  

The authors seek to establish a new direction for policy makers by drawing their attention away from outcomes and institutionally centric policy models that have been in place for a generation. They address the “human side” of development such as the social processes contributing to problems of access. St. John, Hu and Fisher see college access as a fundamental knowledge issue. The authors highlight the impact of “non-cognitive variables” such as the ability to navigate educational systems and their transferability to children by families and communities.  Their basic position is informed by the Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977; 1990) popular work that identifies concepts of non-financial or social and cultural capital as resources families can accumulate and transmit to their children; ultimately providing advantages in educational and social systems.  Based on these concepts, the authors develop an emergent theory of, academic capital formation that contributes to cross-generational uplift at “critical transitions” for students.

A review of previous research from a wide selection of social theorists (many of whom are drawn from the Frankfurt school of critical theory) serves as a platform to discuss a set of six social constructs they describe as potential obstacles in the formation of academic capital. Using these six constructs— concerns about costs, networking, trust, information, cultural capital, and habitual patterns—as a figurative “rubric,” they critically examine three exemplary state intervention programs to determine not only what has contributed to their success, but to generate a general theory about the processes that lead to successful cross- generational uplift which should inform further policy.   Given the confluence of constructs and interventions, this approach to exploring access might be considered a bit complex for those interested in access.  However, social constructs widely vary and any attempt at discussing them can be complicated.  What St. John, Hu, and Fisher do is to use the complexity of this variability to foster a multi-faceted discussion about access.   As such, they stretch the boundaries of discussion by inviting readers to a progressive call for social uplift.  

These constructs are designed to help hypothesize about a generic set of conditions that would allow a student from a low-income family without a history of higher education to enroll successfully in a four-year institution. The constructs were used to examine social processes related to academic capital formation when the authors turned their investigation over to three successful intervention programs: Washington State Achievers, Twenty-first Century Scholars Program and the Gates Millennium Scholars. The bulk of their research is an analysis of the process of academic capital formation by these programs as revealed by focus group interviews with the award recipients as well as their own statistical analyses of winners, people who applied and were not awarded, and non-applicants. They use their six pronged framework to investigate each program for the following four processes: Family and Community engagement, Academic Preparation, College Transitions, Engaged Learning and College Successes and Commitment to Uplift.

This work investigates the relationship between the hypothesized social construct and its contribution to academic capital formation.  For each of the sections, their research is conveniently summarized in tables which produce statements like the following: Concept:  Networking (basic pattern) “the networks that support preparation can seem distant to children in schools that do not have college preparatory courses and teachers who believe in them;” Academic preparation (alternative pattern) “Building a capacity for caring reform in high schools is necessary; and supporting elders in community organizations and churches builds networks.”

The middle third of the book represents a very long haul through the intricacies of their multi-faceted investigation of all three programs.  The devoted reader will be made privy to their numerous unexpected findings such as their view that finding a good college fit is an extended process that may occur over the enrollment of several institutions. Thus, portable guaranteed aid helps facilitate transfers between schools and contributes, unexpectedly, to academic success and engaged learning.

The authors succeed with these constructs as they identify the lived experiences of people who have no history with higher education. By starting with deficits about what is known about this process as opposed to the institutions themselves, this framework has the opportunity to deliver policy-based intervention more efficiently and effectively.  As such, this work has significant contemporary appeal as a precursor for future implications regarding how knowledge about access should be examined holistically.   In short, by better understanding how information about college access is acquired we can improve the efficiency of our delivery and ultimately our success in increasing access.

In Part Two of the book the writers summarize their major findings and lay the theoretical foundation for their research with academic capital. In this section they revisit their initial assumptions with the aid of their emergent theory. Overall, the first part of this chapter provides an excellent and more succinct summary of their findings that will be used to inform public policy.

In the last section the authors summarize their findings and recommend how policy-makers could use their work. Mainly this section is used to convey the distinction between their subtly Marxist approach and what they characterize as the neo-liberal educational policy that has been in place for the last three decades. For instance, while neoliberal policy approaches have emphasized the economic benefits of education to the individual, the logical consequence of loan/investment based aid policies that focus on the social processes of class formation and maintenance.

Another recommendation is to shift away from the standards/accountability approach epitomized by No Child Left Behind to an approach that specifically addresses cross-generational uplift. Their third major recommendation is that non-cognitive variables such as a positive self-concept or the ability to navigate “The System” are major contributors to academic and personal success independent of academic variables (such as test scores and grades). This suggests that these should be cultivated and rewarded to the same extent as goals that are easier to measure.

A famous sociologist, once said that, “life is unfair to the poor, tests merely measure the results” (Riseman & Jencks, 2002). St. John and his team have implicitly brought us closer to a policy that rewards institutions for contributing to social outcomes rather than merely measuring inequalities. Acting on this notion, they have brought us one step closer to the operationalization of a critical-theoretical approach into a policy framework. Ultimately St. John and his team have gotten us closer than ever to bringing us real educational policy informed by sociology and not ideology, and this is a progressive approach to understanding access.


Bourdieu, P. (1990).  Reproduction in education, society, and culture.  London, UK: Sage.

Riseman, D., & Jencks, C. (2002). The academic revolution. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 16, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16935, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:28:12 PM

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About the Author
  • Pamela Felder
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    In August 2010 Dr. PAMELA FELDER joined the faculty of the Higher Education Program in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional background includes a three-year teaching appointment in the Higher and Postsecondary Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. Additionally, she served as Lecturer in the Community College Leadership Doctoral Program at Morgan State University in Maryland. She has developed and taught courses in mixed methods research, diversity in higher education, college student retention, professional development in higher education and college student development. Dr. Felder’s primary research interests are graduate student development and doctoral degree completion with an emphasis on the impact racial/cultural experiences on persistence. This work includes a focus on academic socialization and the process of disciplinary identity development. Research Interests and Current Projects Dr. Felder’s research explores the relationship between the belief systems and behaviors of doctoral students and their impact on academic socialization, success, and degree completion. Her work is comprised of an examination of the historical societal factors that have shaped barriers to degree completion and students’ approach to negotiating these barriers. Prior socialization experiences serve to shed light on the socialization aspects of students who enter doctoral study and the disciplinary identities of doctoral degree holders as they begin to engage in their professions.
  • Timothy Shanahan
    University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    TIMOTHY SHANAHAN is a Teaching and Research Fellow and a student in the Master's of Science in Education Program in the Higher Education Division in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
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