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More than a Number: A Capabilities Framework for Conceptualizing Community College Success

by Amelia Marcetti Topper - 2019

Context: Community colleges in the United States are increasingly tasked with demonstrating their commitment to improved institutional outcomes even as measures of student success are critiqued for failing to capture the colleges’ diverse missions and student populations.

Purpose: This paper offers an alternative framework for understanding and evaluating community college student success based on the normative and interdisciplinary capabilities approach.

Setting: The larger study on which this paper is based took place at a large, diverse community college located in the southwestern United States.

Participants: The sample for this study consists of 958 e-survey respondents (N = 17,080; response rate 6%), and semi-structured follow-up interviews with a heterogeneous group of 40 community college students.

Research Design: The study uses mixed methods consisting of a large-scale e-survey, student interviews, participant- and researcher-generated visual methods, and in-depth reviews of the community college and capabilities approach literatures.

Results: The author used a top-down/bottom-up process to generate a final empirical list of 12 community college capabilities that are informed by both the literature and student voices: practical reason, knowledge and imagination, learning disposition, social relations and networks, respect and recognition, emotional health, bodily health, economic opportunities, love and care, language competency and confidence, autonomy, and refuge. This paper also transparently documents the methodological process the author uses to generate these capabilities to aid both researchers and practitioners in their efforts to help students flourish and thrive as they navigate the higher education landscape.

Conclusions: The results of this study provide educational researchers and practitioners with a methodological process for developing their own locally sourced understandings of student success. As proposed in this paper, reframing the educational experience around capabilities and capabilities development provides colleges—and education institutions more generally—with a new, more responsive and democratic set of tools to use in understanding all the ways in which community colleges help students build and sustain meaningful lives.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 1, 2019, p. 1-52
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22444, Date Accessed: 8/2/2021 3:04:02 AM

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About the Author
  • Amelia Topper
    Arizona State University
    E-mail Author
    AMELIA MARCETTI TOPPER is an education researcher and graduate of Arizona State University’s Education Policy and Evaluation doctoral program. She studies issues related to educational access, student success, and school choice, particularly among historically marginalized and at-risk populations, using mixed methodologies. Recent relevant publications include A Comparison of Federally Funded Sample Surveys on Postsecondary Education: Areas of Alignment and Variation, published by the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, U.S. Department of Education, in 2017; and “Democracy’s College: The American Community College in the 21st Century. Framing the Issue,” in Education Policy Analysis Archives (2013).
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