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“They Never Told Me What to Expect, So I Didn’t Know What to Do”: Defining and Clarifying the Role of a Community College Student

by Melinda Mechur Karp & Rachel Hare Bork - 2014

Background: Low community college completion rates are an area of concern for policymakers and practitioners. Although many students require developmental education upon entry, research suggests that even students who are deemed “college-ready” by virtue of their placement test scores or completion of developmental coursework may not earn a credential, suggesting that college readiness encompasses more than academic skill.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to provide an empirically grounded description of the role of the community college student. Drawing on sociological role theory, we articulate the largely unspoken expectations, behaviors, and attitudes to which students must adhere if they are to be successful. In doing so, we begin to clarify a piece of the college success puzzle that has heretofore been underexamined. We also extend current literature on college persistence by integrating theories of psychosocial identity, social roles, and college persistence.

Research Design: The study uses qualitative data from semistructured interviews conducted with community college students (n = 97) and faculty and staff (n = 72) from a study of student success courses in three community colleges in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). We examined a subset of interview questions investigating the expectations that staff and faculty hold of community college students. We used analytic induction to categorize disparate expectations into discrete components of the community college student role.

Findings: Relying on sociological conceptions of the role, we find that the demands and expectations placed on community college students are different from other social positions with which individuals are familiar, particularly with regard to the level of fluidity and demands for self-awareness. We also identify four distinct components of the role of community college student: academic habits, cultural know-how, balancing multiple demands, and help seeking.

Conclusions: Our data clarify the nonacademic components of college success that contribute to academic readiness. We also find agreement between our data and other college persistence literature focused on other student populations. Our findings extend current understandings of the psychosocial transition to college by paying attention to the cultural elements of the community college student role. This paper concludes with suggestions for future research.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 5, 2014, p. 1-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17414, Date Accessed: 6/14/2021 12:08:57 PM

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About the Author
  • Melinda Karp
    Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    MELINDA MECHUR KARP is a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include the transition from high school to college and the labor market, with a focus on dual enrollment programs, college 101 courses, and support services in the community college. Recent publications include “’I don’t know, I’ve never been to college!’: Dual enrollment as a college readiness strategy” (New Directions for Community Colleges, 2012) and “Student success courses in the community college: Early enrollment and educational outcomes” (with Sung Woo Cho, Community College Review, 2013).
  • Rachel Bork
    The Wallace Foundation
    E-mail Author
    RACHEL HARE BORK is a Research and Evaluation Officer at The Wallace Foundation and previously a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include college readiness, developmental education, and arts education. Recent publications include “Accounting for higher education accountability: Political origins of state performance funding for higher education” (Teachers College Record, 2013) and “A contextualized curricular supplement for developmental reading and writing” (Journal of College Reading and Learning, forthcoming).
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