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Pivotal Moments: How Educators Can Put All Students on the Path to College

reviewed by Karri Holley - December 07, 2012

coverTitle: Pivotal Moments: How Educators Can Put All Students on the Path to College
Author(s): Roberta Espinoza
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612501192, Pages: 200, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Among the most discouraging statistics related to the American education system is the number of minority or low-income students who pursue a postsecondary degree. Sixty-nine percent of African-American students and 65 percent of Hispanic students enroll in postsecondary education immediately upon completion of high school, in comparison to 77 percent of their White peers and 86 percent of their Asian peers (NCES, 2012). These statistics are even more troubling when considering the issue of college completion. Not only do minority students face uncertain access to higher education, but they also encounter significant obstacles that impact their persistence to graduation. Black students are 43 percent less likely to earn a degree in six years compared to their White peers, while Hispanic students are 25 percent less likely (NCES, 2012). Extant research details the numerous obstacles facing students on their path to college. Important predictors of college success include academic preparation, social support, access to information, parental involvement/college knowledge, and financial aid (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000). Such research offers important insight into college access, but does not always include specific steps that individuals and institutions might implement.

Roberta Espinoza adds an important contribution to the conversation about college access with her book, Pivotal Moments: How Educators can put all Students on the Path to College. A product of Espinoza’s research focus on first-generation minority college students, Pivotal Moments presents a deceptively simple premise: interactions between disadvantaged students and college-educated adults can provide a path to postsecondary education. These pivotal moments must be intentional, deliberate, and occur early in the student’s educational career. The book is divided into four parts: understanding pivotal moments, creating pivotal moments in school, fostering pivotal moments in other contexts, and implementing the pivotal moments approach. The disparity in college-going rates and the significance of the pivotal moments framework are introduced in part one. These facts are likely well-known by scholars and observers of American higher education: the role of the education system as a gatekeeper, the lack of mentoring for minority, low income students, and the comparative advantages enjoyed by their middle and upper class peers. Yet the introduction provides an effective foreword for Espinoza’s framework. She outlines its components as a high level of trust between students and educators, an educator with intimate knowledge of college access, early interaction between students and educators, the importance of multiple interactions, and the importance of goal-setting by the student (p. 37). Using two individual case studies, Espinoza argues that pivotal moment relationships can “significantly strengthen students’ educational values and goals… [and allow them] to overcome the social class and racial and ethnic disadvantages faced in school” (p. 46).

In part two, Espinoza introduces Mr. Chang, a high school guidance counselor. Mr. Chang defines his role as “being a student’s greatest advocate and support system…letting them know you have high expectations” (p. 81). Through his work, Espinoza emphasizes the importance of earning students’ trust as a key characteristic of a pivotal moment interaction. Students recognize that they are more than just a number, and that they matter in terms of the educational system. Subsequent chapters in this section accentuate the dichotomy which often shapes the college-going process: believing that all students can go to college, as opposed to the notion that college is not for everyone, as one example. Often the argument that “college is not for everyone” leaves disadvantaged students on one side, looking at their comparatively more advantaged peers on the other. Another example is recognizing that students cannot simply absorb facts about college-going, but rather need to actively engage in gathering critical educational information and academic skills (p. 111). This engagement is part of fostering a college-going culture that is critical across multiple components of the education system.

Espinoza takes the reader outside the school context in part three, outlining the importance of academic outreach programs such as Upward Bound, GEAR UP, College Match, and the Gates Early College High School Initiative. While federal, state, private, and nonprofit programs are often grouped together in terms of their impact on students, Espinoza points out that the programs offer different avenues towards achieving pivotal moments. Some of the avenues lead to inequitable or non-productive outcomes, such as the conversation Espinoza recounts between an outreach counselor and a low-income minority student. The student received offers of admission from a less-selective public institution and a highly selective private university. The counselor compared the decision to the choice between a name brand and a generic medicine, explaining, “One you just pay more, one you pay less, it’s the same kind of education” (p. 147). Private initiatives frequently boast better outcomes in terms of college-going rates, in part because of social connections with admissions staff and program funders as well as more rigorous academic criteria for initial acceptance into the program. Espinoza further delineates the importance of early interventions and building trust between the student and the adult in part three.

In the conclusion, Espinoza focuses on implementation. Providing training and support for counselors like Mr. Chang necessitates knowledge of student challenges, educational inequities, effective college-going skills, and engagement with students’ families and communities. By building institutional capacity, the education system ensures that pivotal moments are not the result of sheer chance or individual initiative, but instead “transform practices to support students who are potentially the first in their families to attend college” (p. 193). How might the system best outline practices in a system plagued by financial constraints and political conflict? Espinoza hints at the answers here, in noting the importance of strengthening the capacity of individual educators to meet students’ needs. But the challenge of scaling up a notion such as “pivotal moments” lingers as an unanswered question in the book.

In reading this text, I was reminded that as educators, we are well aware of those important interactions with students that prompt interest in pursuing college. We are also well aware of the importance of a college degree in terms of a student’s personal and professional advancement. The challenge seems to be the ability (or willingness) for the educational system to commit the resources to support these sorts of interactions across the student population, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or geographic region. While Espinoza does not necessarily break new ground in this area, she does further reinforce the essentially human nature of educational interactions. Education matters, in part because of the ability of Mr. Chang and others to foster pivotal moments as part of their connections with students. We might all learn from their experiences, which is a true value of Espinoza’s work.


Cabrera, A., & La Nasa, S. (2000). Understanding the college choice of disadvantaged students. New Directions for Institutional Research (107). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

National Center for Education Statistics (2012). Higher education: Gaps in access and persistence study. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 07, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16961, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:24:33 PM

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About the Author
  • Karri Holley
    University of Alabama
    E-mail Author
    KARRI HOLLEY is associate professor of higher education at the University of Alabama. Her articles have recently appeared in Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Theory into Practice, Educational Researcher, Studies in Higher Education, and Higher Education. Her research focuses on the organizational and cultural challenges associated with interdisciplinary initiatives with an emphasis on graduate education.
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