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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.


I hate being called a number, and they do that a lot in school. It makes me furious. Like, my name is Caleb, not P19.

Caleb, Desert Valley Community College student

Community colleges educate approximately 10 million students annually and enroll half (49%) of all undergraduate students attending public institutions in the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 2015a). Their missions include preparing students for transfer to four-year institutions, conferring short- and long-term certificates and diplomas, providing developmental and continuing education, meeting local and regional workforce needs through career education and professional development programs, and serving as a community gathering space and resource (Cohen & Brawer, 2008). Community colleges are also the first entry point into higher education for the majority of low-income, first-generation, and historically marginalized college students (Cohen & Brawer, 2008; Cohen, Kisker, & Brawer, 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2015a). Despite their diverse missions and student population, the increased national focus on educational accountability over the past three decades has concentrated attention on community colleges relatively low persistence and completion rates compared with other postsecondary institutions.1 This push to provide evidence of institutional efficiency and effectiveness begs the question: What exactly do measures of student success look like for such highly diverse and democratically inspired higher education institutions?

This paper is one part of a larger research project that sought to understand (1) to what extent community colleges enhance and/or constrain the development of students academic, professional, and civic abilities to be and do what they value in life (or, capabilities), and (2) in what ways do community college students, faculty, and administrators value and prioritize these different capabilities. To answer these research questions, I began by first establishing the range of capabilities of value to the community college students who participated in this study. I did this by using the methodological process outlined by the capabilities approach,2 a normative welfare economics framework with interdisciplinary roots. The resulting empirical list of community college capabilities represents an alternative and more expansive conceptualization of community college student success and well-being than is currently present in the higher education literature. The proposed framework is significant in that it (1) seeks to provide a solid conceptual understanding of success as it relates to the unique experiences of community college students and (2) addresses the complexities involved in measuring this construct so that it reflects the real needs and values of this very large and diverse student population.

Since the 1980s, community college scholarship has narrowed around academic and economic measures of student success (Bailey, Jaggars, & Jenkins, 2015a) that effectively homogenize the aspirations, achievements, and challenges of the individuals who attend these open-access institutions. While graduation and transfer rates, and more recently employment and wage data, are (relatively) easy to collect, as macro-level indicators of institutional progress they are by nature designed to reduce the student experience to a numerical representationsomething to be quantified and rationalized (Bensimon, 2007).3 Such indicators are also disconnected from students motivations and broader aspirations, which are often more nuanced, complex, and non-linear (e.g., Adelman, 1999, 2006; Bettinger & Long, 2005; Crews & Aragon, 2007; de los Santos & Sutton, 2012; de los Santos & Wright, 1989, 1990; Hoachlander, Sikora, & Horn, 2003; Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Moreover, dominant conceptual and methodological approaches do not fully interrogate what success means in the community colleges unique context and thereby fail to capture key components of the community college missions (Cox, 2009; Crisp & Mina, 2012; Rogers, 1991). These approaches also make assumptions about what student success outcomes are most valued without fully considering what success might mean to community college students.4 In other words, the extant literature lacks a framework that can help us to conceptually understand the construct of success as it applies to the unique experiences of community college students.

I begin this paper by introducing the capabilities approach, its components, and how the approach has been used within higher education. I then describe the methodological process I used to generate an initial theoretical list of community college capabilities based on a comprehensive review of the community college and capabilities approach literatures. I then made this theoretical list more student centered through the analysis of multiple types of data gathered as part of an empirical case study conducted at a community college in the southwestern United States, consisting of a large-scale student e-survey (N = 17,080; n = 958; response rate 6%) and follow-up interviews with a heterogeneous group of students (n = 40) that incorporated two participatory visual methods. The resulting empirical list of community college capabilities was therefore informed by both the literature and student voicesvoices heard and documented through a triangulation of complementary methods. Although the primary purpose of this paper is to offer an empirically derived, capabilities-based framework to more deeply and comprehensively understand community college student success, the paper also transparently documents the methodological process I used to generate this framework to aid both researchers and practitioners in their efforts to help students flourish and thrive as they navigate the higher education landscape.


The capabilities approach is based on two central principles. First, an individuals freedom to achieve personal well-being is of primary moral importance. Second, this freedom to achieve personal well-being depends on an individuals capabilities to do and be what he or she values in life (Robeyns, 2011). This approach challenges those concerned with human well-being and development to consider the institutions role in fostering capabilities, and to what extent individuals are free, or capable, to achieve their academic, professional, civic, and personal goals. In doing so, the capabilities approach foregrounds individual agency so that individuals are recognized as ends in themselves and not merely for their contribution to the local or national economy (Boni & Walker, 2013). This section provides an overview of the capabilities approach, its key components, use in higher education, and potential limitations.


The economist, philosopher, and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen proposed the capabilities approach in the late 1970s based on his applied work on poverty reduction in developing countries (Sen, 1979, 1989, 1999). Sen argued that macro-level economic gains alone, such as Gross National Product (GNP), are insufficient measures of national growth because they use limited, aggregate measures of development (i.e., income, in the case of the GNP) that only consider a small portion of what individuals and societies need to flourish. Martha Nussbaum, a moral and legal philosopher, elaborated on (e.g., 1988, 2000, 2010, 2011) and collaborated with Sen (Nussbaum & Sen, 1993) to further develop the capabilities approach and identify the central human capabilities that a democratic government should ensure for its citizens (Robeyns, 2005).5 Both Sen and Nussbaum, as well as other capabilities approach scholars and philosophers (e.g., Alkire, 2002a, 2002b; Alkire & Black, 1997; Alkire & Deneulin, 2009; Haq, 1995), have drawn on the ideas of Aristotle, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Rawls to consider issues of equality and justice, and how these concepts can, or cannot, be achieved in light of the neoliberal and utilitarian perspectives that dominate the global political and social landscape. Such perspectives seek to quantify human well-being and, in doing so, limit the judgments of states of affairs to the utilities in the respective states (paying no direct attention to such things as the fulfillment or violation of rights, duties, and so on) (Sen, 1999, p. 59).

The approach is guided by three main concepts (Alkire & Deneulin, 2009): functionings, what we choose to value (or, outcomes); capabilities, the freedom to pursue what we value; and agency, the ability to actualize these choices (or, personal choice). Other factors that inform individuals decision-making process are the financial and material resources available to them; their ability to transform these resources into capabilities based on their social and environmental contexts (also called conversion factors); and the external influences on deciding what they value, such as the opinions and desires of loved ones or the economic climate in which they live (or, adaptive preferences). Figure 1, an elaboration of Robeyns (2005, p. 98), illustrates how these components work in concert to support individual well-being. In short, an individuals resources, and ability to use these resources to freely pursue what they want out of life without political, social, economic, or personal limitations, are influenced by the individuals own agency and input from others.6

Figure 1. Visual representation of the capabilities approach framework. Adapted and elaborated from Robeyns, 2005, p. 98.


The United Nations Development Programmes Human Development Report is a prominent example of how the capabilities approach has been used to generate national-level normalized indices of three key dimensions of human development: longevity, education, and standard of living (e.g., Malik, United Nations Development Programme, & Human Development Report Office, 2014; United Nations Development Programme, 1990). The report organizes functionings into three domains: health, education, and living standards. Capabilities are defined as life expectancy at birth, mean years of schooling, expected years of schooling, and gross national income per capita. These metrics are combined into a single statistic for each member country. Although Sen was reluctant to use such basic, aggregate dimensions of human development, this more multidimensional framework has the advantage of incorporating more aspects of an individuals life context than measures based entirely on income levels.


At their core, functionings are the outcomes that individuals are able, and choose, to realize in life. Basic functionings may include being healthy, having shelter, having access to nourishing food and clean water, being educated, working, and being part of a family or community. Higher-order functionings include critical and scientific literacy, being respected, emotional stability, participation in the political process (Walker, 2006a, 2006b), as well as all other beings and doings . . . [that] together constitute what makes a life valuable (Robeyns, 2005, p. 95). Given that functionings are effectively limitless, and certainly sensitive to socio-economic, cultural, and historical contexts, measuring all the possible and potential functionings an individual may value could pose a challenge. Moreover, focusing only on observable and measurable functionings (also referred to as achieved functionings; see Alkire, 2002a, 2002b; Terzi, 2005), such as test scores or degree completion, can mask the individual differences and degrees of agency behind two apparently equal outcomes. This is why the capabilities approach requires that we do not simply evaluate the functionings but the real freedom or opportunities each student had available to choose and to achieve what she valued (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007, p. 5)or, namely, capabilities themselves.


Capabilities are what people are free to do; they are potential functionings, or less formally the freedom to achieve various possible lifestyles (Schischka, 2003, p. 2). Taken together, a capabilities set reflects the alternative combinations of things a person is able to do or be (Sen, 1993, p. 30). Walker (2006b) points out that capabilities are not to be misunderstood for mere skills, they are instead freedom and rationality combined (p. 165). While education is a functioning, the ability to attend a high-quality school, have access to educational materials, and study at home without interruptions or external obligations are all capabilities. Other capabilities may include the ability to obtain quality healthcare, the ability to access desired reading materials, the freedom to travel without restrictions, and the ability to participate in the democratic process. Capabilities, therefore, reflect the extent an individual is able to actualize the various functionings that are personally valuable and meaningful.

While it is conceptually and methodologically easier to evaluate functionings, examining capabilities prevents us from privileging one macro-level vision of the good life over another (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007). Defining capabilities, therefore, is the first step in using this framework. Some scholars, such as Nussbaum (2000, 2010, 2011), advocate for the use of a universal capability set, which has the advantage of being more easily incorporated into, and potentially influencing, policy debates and decisions (Boni & Walker, 2013; Lozano, Boni, Peris, & Hueso, 2012). Sen (1999, 2004, 2006, 2009), on the other hand, argues that capabilities lists should be developed as part of a deliberative process with the individuals, or groups of individuals, participating in the research. Alkires (2002a) review of 40 such capabilities lists, however, suggests that these lists have much in common because they are, for the most part, sufficiently abstract to capture a range of human experiences. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the ways in which these capabilities lists are constructedthe criteria and processes used to formulate the list, the purpose of the list and the manner in which specific lists are used (Wilson-Strydom, 2014, p. 3; see also Clark, 2013). The elements that comprise these lists, while normative, are not weighted or presented in a hierarchical order.


Sen defines agency, or as he calls it agency freedom, as someone who acts and brings about change, and whose achievements are to be judged in terms of her own values and objectives, whether or not we assess them in terms of some external criteria as well (Sen, 1999, p. 19). Limited or constrained agency disadvantages an individual, who is then unable make choices reflective of the life he or she wants to live without external interference. As Dreze and Sen elaborate, the capabilities approach is essentially a people-centered approach, which puts human agency (rather than organizations such as markets or governments) at the centre of the stage (2002, p. 6). However, as discussed by Crocker (2008), not all forms of the capabilities approach feature agency so overtly.


The capabilities approach is most widely known in fields concerned with human development (e.g., political theory, philosophy, human health), where it has been used to evaluate the multiple deprivations suffered by many of the poor and the interconnections among these deprivations (Alkire & Foster, 2007, p. 77). Education and higher education scholars have been slower to embrace the approach both in theory and practice, in part because Sen under-theorizes about education in his writings on the capabilities approach (Flores-Crespo, 2007; Saito, 2003; Unterhalter, 2003; Walker, 2006b). An additional challenge for researchers interested in using this approach is that education can be interpreted as both a functioning (educational attainment), a capability that informs other capabilities and functionings, and a process related to individual agency (Saito, 2003; Unterhalter, 2001). Most capability approach scholars, including Sen, however, view education as a fundamental capability (Terzi, 2007). That said, the capabilities approach does not assume that formal education is an unqualified good for all students. Educational institutions vary across countries and localities, as does the way individuals personal backgrounds interact with schools, teachers, support staff, educational resources, and other students (Hart, 2013).

The capabilities approach emphasizes human flourishing, evaluates conditions related to social arrangements, recognizes the voices and perspectives of those who may be marginalized, and is committed to social justice (Boni & Walker, 2013; Walker, 2010). Using this approach allows higher education scholars to better discern the nature and role of education in enhancing or constraining life opportunities instead of its ability to meet the needs of the labor market. Moreover, the approach does not presuppose a particular notion of the good life, but instead aim[s] at providing a range of possible ways of living (Robeyns, 2006, p. 353), which is aligned with the purposes of public higher education and, in particular, those institutions that operate within democracies and/or with democratic social aims (e.g., access, equity, civic participation), such as the community college. The capabilities approach asks researchers to consider how educational institutions enhance or reinforce capabilities development by centering the assessment of student development on the needs of students instead of the needs of external agents. Perhaps most importantly, the capabilities approach recognizes that one type of educational institution may not be suitable, accessible, or desirable for all students.

Walker has written extensively on why this framework is appropriate for evaluating students experiences in universities (Boni & Walker, 2013; Walker, 2006a, 2010, 2012b; Walker, McLean, Dison, & Peppin-Vaughan, 2009), arguing that human capital approaches fail to account for the non-instrumental choices students make, such as pursuing an undergraduate degree in philosophy despite the poor economic outlook, or the social and civic purposes of higher education (Walker, 2010). Empirical studies that use the capabilities approach, however, are primarily situated outside the United States, including Australia (Wheelahan, 2014), China (Wang, 2011), Ireland (Kelly, 2013), Kenya (Unterhalter, 2009), Mexico (Flores-Crespo, 2002, 2004, 2007), New Zealand (Schischka, 2012), Portugal (Ribeiro, 2014), Spain (Boni, Perisa, Huesoa, Rodilla, & Lozano, 2010), South Africa (Loots & Walker, 2015; McLean & Walker, 2012; Niemann, 2013; Walker, 2006a, 2006b, 2012a; Walker et al., 2009; Walker & Unterhalter, 2007; Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015), and Sweden (Brännlund, 2014), among others, as well as several comparative studies spanning multiple countries (Ilieva-Trichkova, 2014; Unterhalter, 2009, 2012). This research, largely conducted at universities (see Wheelahan, 2014, as an exception), is complemented by a rich exploration of the theoretical applications of the capabilities approach to education (e.g., Hart, 2009, 2012; Mutanga, 2014; Otto & Zielger, 2006; Saito, 2003; Terzi, 2005, 2007; Tikly & Barrett, 2011; Unterhalter, 2003, 2009; Walker, 2003, 2006a, 2006b, 2008a, 2008b, 2010, 2012b, 2012c; Walker & Unterhalter, 2007).

Of the three studies conducted in the United States that use the capabilities approach (Deprez & Butler, 2007; Maguire et al., 2007; Rafaj, 2012), two address postsecondary access and success. Deprez and Butler (2007) document how low-income women with children who were enrolled in Maines Parents as Scholars program for welfare recipients reported positive changes in self-concept, improved their abilities to be role models to their children, gained the skills to be more employable, and became involved in wider society. Similarly, Rafaj (2012) used the capabilities approach to examine whether Texas Top 10 Percent law expanded postsecondary access to low-income and minority students and provided students with the ability to realize their education aspirations. While this study had several limitations (data availability, no measure of socio-economic status), Rafajs analysis of survey data from the Texas Higher Education Opportunity Project indicated that the law increased the probability of Mexican American students realizing their college goals by 20%.

Recent studies by Walker (2006b) and Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015), which both presented capabilities lists for higher education, are of particular relevance to this paper. Walker (2006a) developed an ideal-theoretical list of eight higher education capabilities following a thorough review of existing capabilities lists, including more general lists for human well-being (Nussbaum, 2000) and those developed for higher education settings (e.g., Bozalek, 2004; Flores-Crespo, 2004). Her resulting list was ideal and theoretical because it was not developed through public participation, which Sen, Alkire, and other capabilities approach scholars strongly advocate. The intent of this list, therefore, was to begin a dialogue around capabilities for higher education contexts instead of arguing for a prescriptive set of higher education capabilities. Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015) also generated an ideal-theoretical list of nine capabilities, largely based on Walkers (2006a) proposed list, but with a specific focus on university transition in South Africa. Wilson-Strydom took the additional step of refining this list into a pragmatic capabilities list of only those capabilities that have been shown both theoretically and empirically to underlie a successful university transition (Wilson-Strydom, 2015, p. 114). The resulting pragmatic list drew on survey data collected as part of the South African High School Survey of Learner Engagement (n = 2,816) and follow-up qualitative research with 33 survey participants and 270 first-year university students. The pragmatic list is intended to be more logistically, methodologically, politically, and financially feasible than the ideal-theoretical list.

Critiques and Limitations

Robeyns (2005) has identified three major critiques that have been leveled against the capabilities approach. First, the approach is too individualist and fails to consider the social and environmental conditions that influence how an individual is able to convert capabilities into functionings. Second and relatedly, the approach does not consideror consider enoughgroup memberships effect on an individuals well-being. Lastly, the approach does not consider social structures, like group membership, and how these structures affect well-being. However, as Robeyns (2005) argues, the first critique is unwarranted as the capabilities approach is in fact concerned about both individuals and the socio-political and cultural conditions in which they live. The second and third critiques are, as Robeyns (2005) puts it, neither right nor wrong, as they are evaluative judgements [sic], not factual judgements [sic] (p. 107).


My methodology for developing the theoretical and empirical community college capabilities lists followed Robeyns (2003) four methodological steps for generating a capabilities list: (1) brainstorming on potential capabilities, (2) a review of the relevant literature, (3) a review of existing lists of capabilities, and (4) discussion and debate with others on the proposed ideal list. Thus, I began this research by first brainstorming potential capabilities that might be of value to community college students, which I followed with a review of the community college and capability approach literatures. I then conducted an empirical study to validate and refine the initial set of capabilities with data collected from current community college students. This two-stage process, described by Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015) as a top-down/bottom-up approach, ensures that the resulting capabilities liststheoretical (informed by the literature and my own experiences) and empirical (informed by firsthand data)are as comprehensive, valid, and participant-centered as possible.

The following sections detail my methodological process for the top-down review of the literature and the bottom-up empirical data I subsequently collected as part of my multiple methods single-site case study. I have chosen to present my methodology this way so readers can see the arc of my research process in its entirety. I have also attempted to be as transparent as possible, as one intended contribution of this paper is to demonstrate how researchers and practitionersbased both at community colleges and other educational entitiescan use the capabilities approach in their own work. Figure 2 shows the breadth and depth of the data collected as part of this study. Consistent with the capabilities approach methodology and literature, I collected and analyzed multiple types of data in order to ensure the resulting capabilities lists were as robust as possible (Yin, 2006). I argue that these methods, taken together, provided a more comprehensive picture of community college student success across multiple outcome measures and dimensions at the selected site than would otherwise have been available using more traditional methods or just one method on its own.

Figure 2. Top-down and bottom-up data sources


Top-Down: Reviewing the Literature

Following Robeyns (2003) and Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015), I began by brainstorming potential capabilities for community college students based on my personal and professional experiences. Over the past two decades I have taken credit- and non-credit-bearing classes at my local community colleges, from tennis to a geography course required for my masters degree in educationclasses that I took for pleasure and health, and classes that I took because they were more affordable and convenient than those offered at the university I attended. Professionally, for the six years prior to the start of my doctoral degree program, I was part of a research team responsible for supporting the data collection efforts of a national community college student success initiative. I worked closely with over 100 community college institutional research departments to ensure the student-level data we were tasked with collecting was accurate, robust, and timely. Over the course of this work, and as similar student success efforts proliferated, I began to feel that the discourse around these initiatives was positioning students as a problem that needed to be fixed, controlled, and corrected for the sake of institutional outcomes. Moreover, the uniqueness of each college made me question whether a standard data collection instrument was feasible, or even desirable, given colleges diverse contexts and institutional quirks. Over the course of my doctoral degree program, I became dissatisfied with the dominant conceptual and methodological approaches used to explain how students move through higher education institutions. Community colleges have more diverse missions and student populations than the institutions where these theories were developed. I eventually found my way to the capabilities approach, which seemed well-suited to explore what kinds of successes are valued by individuals over institutions.

After considering my own positionality and experiences attending and working with community colleges, I then conducted a comprehensive review of the higher education literature (peer-reviewed articles, reports, and policy briefs) on community college access, student development, and outcomes (e.g., Adelman, 1999, 2006; Bailey et al., 2015a; Bailey, Jeong, & Cho, 2010; Beach, 2011; Cohen et al., 2014; Crisp & Mina, 2012; Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010; Mellow & Heelan, 2008; Merisotis & Phipps, 2000; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005; Quigley & Bailey, 2003; Rendón, 1994, 2002; Tinto, 2005, 2012), as well as issues of equity and stratification (e.g., Brint & Karabel, 1989; Clark, 1960; de los Santos, de los Santos, & Milliron, 2003; Dougherty, 1987, 1994; Dowd, 2007; Holmewood, 2013; Zwerling, 1976). I also reviewed studies that have used the capabilities approach in educational (e.g., Biggeri, 2004; Biggeri, Ballet, & Comim, 2011; Biggeri, Libanora, Mariani, & Menchini, 2006; Hart, 2013; Saito, 2003; Terzi, 2005) and higher educational settings (e.g., Boni & Gasper, 2012; Boni & Walker, 2013; Flores-Crespo, 2002, 2004, 2007; Garnett, 2009; Hart, 2012; Hart, Biggeri, & Babic, 2014; Lozano et al., 2012; Raynor, 2007; Schischka, 2012; Unterhalter & Carpentier, 2010; Walker, 2006a, 2006b, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013; Walker et al., 2009; Walker & Unterhalter, 2007; Watts & Bridges, 2006; Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015). This helped to ensure that the resulting capabilities reflected the experiences and contexts of community college students while also being grounded in the capabilities literature.

Next, I conducted a thorough comparison of education-related capabilities lists (Biggeri, 2004; Biggeri et al., 2006; Bozalek, 2004; Flores-Crespo, 2004; Robeyns, 2003; Walker, 2006a, 2006b, 2008; Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015). As Robeyns (2003) and Qizilbash (2004) noted more than a decade ago, there isand continues to bemuch overlap across these capabilities lists. Many of these lists are mutually informed. That is, these scholars have considered one anothers lists as well as the foundational capabilities lists that address human well-being and flourishing more broadly (e.g., Alkire & Black, 1997; Erikson, 1992; Erikson & Åberg, 1987; Nussbaum, 1995, 2000, 2003, 2010).7

The final step of Robeyns (2003) processdiscussion and debate with others on the proposed ideal listhas unfolded in informal and formal ways over the course of this research project. Informally, I have engaged in conversations about community college student success with university colleagues and community college researchers and practitioners. More formal conversations have taken place during structured mentoring opportunities and paper presentations at education, higher education, and capabilities approach annual conferences. As for a more public debate, it is my hope that this paper will serve as an additional outlet for wider reflection and discussion.

Bottom-Up: Empirical Research

After generating an initial list of theoretical capabilities for community college students, I tested and refined the list through the bottom-up collection (Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015) of empirical data gathered as part of a case study research project conducted at a community college in the southwestern United States. As Robeyns articulated, it is important to involve the affected people in the selection of capabilities and not to impose on them a list they simply have to accept, especially when the capability approach is used in political and policy contexts (2003, p. 76).

As illustrated in Figure 2 above, my data consisted of a large-scale student e-survey and follow-up student interviews (both detailed below) that incorporated visual and participatory methods to further unpack students conceptualizations of community college success. My decision to conduct a single-site case study was informed by my desire to obtain a rich understanding of what student success means, a review of the capabilities approach literature, which focuses on understanding capabilities development within specific populations and contexts, as well as the reality of research, financial, and time constraints. With these factors in mind, and given that the capabilities approach has not yet been applied to the community college context, I decided that the best path forward was to conduct an in-depth study focused on one institution.

Institutional Site

My study took place at Desert Valley Community College (DVCC),8 a suburban college located outside of a sprawling metropolitan region in the southwestern United States. The college is the second oldest community college in the state and is part of the largest community college district in the nation. Like many community colleges, DVCC serves a largely nontraditional9 student population. In Fall 2013, 65% of the colleges approximately 21,000 students were enrolled part time, 54% were female, 33% were 25 years of age or older, 53% identified as non-White, and 45% received some type of grant or scholarship to offset the cost of tuition (U.S. Department of Education, 2015b). Although DVCCs three-year graduation rate10 (12%) for first-time, full-time students who began their studies in Fall 2010 was substantially lower than the national average (20%; U.S. Department of Education, 2015c),11, 12 close to one-third (32%) of students transferred within this time frame (U.S. Department of Education, 2015b), which is generally consistent with national estimates.13, 14


The e-survey instrument contained 28 closed-ended questions exploring meanings of student success, and five open-ended questions seeking elaboration on previous responses. Respondents were presented with Likert scale items covering various academic, professional, and civic meanings of success culled from the various literatures, such as Having a high grade point average, Earning the skills to work at a job that is meaningful to you, and Gaining confidence in your ability to participate as a citizen. They were asked to what degree they valued these meanings, and whether the community college had expanded or limited them in these areas. The e-survey also asked students to provide demographic information.

I administered the e-survey using SurveyMonkey over two 14-day periods in July and September 2014. I sent the email invitation to 17,080 DVCC students who were over the age of 18 and enrolled in at least one credit in either Fall 2013, Spring 2014, or Summer 2014. I gave participants the opportunity to enter a random drawing for one of 10 $25 Amazon.com gift cards to improve potential response rates (Anderson & Kanuka, 2003; Czaja & Blair, 2005; Daniel, 2012; Dillman, Smyth, & Christian, 2009; Weisberg, 2005). The e-survey population included approximately 67% of all of the colleges students and 73% of students over the age of 18 who attempted a course during the specified study time frame.15 In total, 1,209 students responded to the e-survey for an overall response rate of 7%. After reviewing responses and removing those respondents who identified themselves as under the age of 18 (n = 2) or did not respond to six or more key items16 and provided no demographic information (n = 249), the final e-survey sample consisted of 958 student respondents for a 6% response rate. I downloaded the e-survey responses from SurveyMonkey and imported them into SPSS for analysis.

Response rate. There are several factors that likely contributed to the low e-survey response rate. While I was able to work with the college and the district office to add my university email account to their permitted senders list, potential respondents may have disregarded my initial email and follow-up reminders because they did not come from a DVCC college email address. Several of my interview participants said that they rarely check their institutional email address, which suggests that some number of students missed the e-survey administration period and/or did not see my email invitations. Furthermore, given that many community college students are enrolled part time and have other demands on their time, they may not have had the time or the willingness to participate in a 15-minute e-survey.

Generalizability. Creswell defines generalizability as the the external validity of applying results to new settings, people, or samples (2009, p. 190), while Maxwell (2005) makes the further distinction between internal generalizability (generalizing within a group or setting) and external generalizability (generalizing beyond a group or setting). Because I did not have access to demographic information on the 17,080 students who received an e-survey invitation, I could not definitively determine the extent to which non-respondent bias was present. However, a comparison of DVCCs college-reported demographic data for students enrolled during Fall 2013 (U.S. Department of Education, 2015b) with the final e-survey sample indicates that e-survey respondents were more likely to be White, female, and over the age of 24 than the entire college student population (Table 1). However, given that the final sample included approximately 70% of the entire student body (U.S. Department of Education, 2014), and considering the law of large numbers that states that the sample mean will approach the population mean as the sample size increases, I have assumed that the final sample mean is (more or less) normally distributed and reflective of the broader DVCC student population. Furthermore, through the use of a confidence interval calculator, I determined that the sample size was sufficient to support, at minimum, internal generalization. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.076% with a 95% confidence level (Creative Research Systems, n.d.),17 which indicates that the 6% response rate is adequate for external generalizability.

When conducting case study research, however, the generalizability of findings is informed by the researchers ultimate goalwhether the intent is to look at a typical case or an unusual one (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). In addition, some scholars would argue that generalizability does not have a place in case study researchor, at least, not immediately soas the purpose of the inquiry is to understand the underlying reality of the individuals and relationships at hand (Moriceau, 2009). My intent was to deeply understand student success at one community college, and the site was selected based on their long history in the state and their efforts to implement various student success strategies and programs. I argue that while community colleges generally have a shared historical mission, they are each their own ecosystem and have different enough institutional cultures and state contexts to be studied individually. As such, generalizability was not a central goal of this study; I intended that these findings and stories would resonate on various levels with the reader and be useful in their own reflections on practice and future research projects.

Table 1. Characteristics of Students Enrolled at the College Site and Student E-Survey Participants


Fall 2013 Enrollment
n = 20,782)

Student E-Survey Participants

(n = 958)





















 Black/African American






 American Indian/Alaska Native



 Other race


 Two or more races






 Non-resident alien***




 24 and under



 25 and over





Pell Grant Receipt (Yes)****



*College data was reported with dichotomous gender categories, while the e-survey included additional gender options.

**College data was reported using combined race/ethnicity categories, while e-survey demographics separated race from ethnicity.

***The U.S. Department of Educations Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System includes nonresident aliens in their race/ethnicity classification. The student e-survey did not include this as a race/ethnicity option, instead allowing respondents to select the race and ethnicity they identify with (separately).

****College data was for all undergraduate students enrolled during the 20132014 AY. E-survey respondents self-reported Pell Grant receipt, and it may be the case that some respondents received a Pell Grant but were not aware of their financial aid package.

Student Interviews

Potential student interviewees self-identified at the end of the e-survey by indicating their willingness to participate in one 45-minute follow-up interview located on DVCCs main campus. The semi-structured interviews took place between July 2014 and November 2014. The purpose of these interviews was to explore the multiple meanings of student success in more depth through the use of open-ended questions, two visual photo-elicitation methods, and a participatory ranking exercise. In total, 364 e-survey respondents expressed interest (38%) and a diverse sample of 196 e-survey respondents were invited to schedule an interview. Of the 65 students who scheduled an interview, 40 students attended and completed an interview.

While these interviewees represented a small sample of DVCCs entire student population, they varied along multiple dimensions, including age, previous college experiences, family configuration, program goals, and citizenship status (Table 2). Participants represented typical traditional college students who go to college directly from high school, as well as students who dropped out of high school, and older students who were coming to the college after no, or inconsistent, previous higher education experience. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of these 40 student participants reflect the community colleges egalitarian missions and open-access enrollment policy, which often are overlooked by policymakers and those wanting to maximize higher educations effectiveness at graduating students and moving them into the labor market.

Table 2. Characteristics of Student Interview Participants


Student Interview Participants (n = 40)











White, non-Hispanic


African American




American Indian/Alaska Native/Pacific Islander


Some other race
















25 and over




First-Generation College Student






Do not know


Previous College Enrollment








Hours Worked Per Week




Under 20 hours


20 hours or more


DACA Recipients (Yes)*


Dependents Under Age of 18 (Yes)


Disability or Impairment (Yes)


Enrolled in Any Developmental Education (Yes)


International Student/Foreign National (Yes)


Native English Speaker (Yes)


Received Pell Grant (Yes)


*Two students volunteered that they were Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, which has allowed them to enroll at in-state tuition cost instead of the more costly out-of-state tuition.

Visual Methods

Visual methods seek to create pictorial narratives that convey what respondents want to communicate in the manner they wish to communicate (Margolis & Pauwels, 2011, p. 188). The collection of images and artifacts from study participantswhether created by the participant or provided by the researcheris considered a form of autodriven photo-elicitation, which is a subcategory of participant visual methods. This study was strengthened through the use of mixed epistemologies in that each visual exercise provided a different window into the participants experiences at DVCC and their perspectives on student success. Consistent with Prosser and Loxley (2008), both approaches offer considerable advantages to flexible researchers especially when difficult and complex research questions are being asked (p. 16), as in the case of this project, where the varied meanings of student success have been understudied and historically dominated by utilitarian concerns.

Participant-generated images. Photo-elicitation techniques have been used since the 1950s in a variety of fields as storytelling devices, including consumer-behavior research, psychology, and visual anthropology and sociology (Heisley & Levy, 1991; Prosser & Loxley, 2008). They are particularly effective in eliciting richer responses in interview formats: the imagery dredges the consciousness (and subconsciousness) of the informant, and in an exploratory fashion reveals significance triggered by the photographic subject matter (Collier, 1979, p. 274). Physical and visual artifacts, such as images or pictures, are also commonly used research tools in ethnographic and historical education research (Anderson-Levitt, 2006; Henry, 2006; Saldaña, 2011), and are one way to advance our knowledge about old and new topics (Fischman, 2001, p. 31).18 Some researchers have argued that participant-generated visual images help stimulate topics that might otherwise be missed (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007; Charmaz & Belgrave, 2012). Fischman (2012) observed that requesting images that have personal significance can effectively aid in the development of a research narrative or inquiry line by providing clues, fragments of memories, meanings and connections which could be recovered through processes of subjective exploration (Fischman, 2012, p. 5). Another advantage of inviting participants to share images that are meaningful to them is that the images provide insight into their immediate thinking about their experiences at the community college and, more broadly, their life goals.19

I invited student participants in advance of the interview to contribute two personally meaningful images representing: (1) a way in which they believe their institution has helped them grow academically, professionally, as citizens, and/or personally, and (2) a way in which they believe their institution may have constrained their growth academically, professionally, as community member, and/or personally. I emailed participants written instructions about how to obtain these images. They could select images from newspapers, magazines, cartoons, or Microsoft Word clipart, or provide self-created photos taken using their cell phones, or found online by searching on their Internet browser for images related to words, places, objects, feelings, ideas, or activities. During the interview, I asked participants who brought images20 to share their images and discuss how they found the images, why they selected them, and what the images represent to them. I also asked participants how their selected images connected with their previous responses and their experiences at the college. These forms of verbal commentary helped to stabilize the meaning of the image (Freeman & Mathison, 2009, p. 160) and aided my subsequent analysis.

Researcher-generated images. Similar to the participant-generated visual exercise, the use of researcher-generated images is an experimental method that involves asking participants to review images created or provided by the researcher. My intention behind this second visual exercise was to evoke a richer story around participants understandings of student success by presenting images that carry multiple meanings and thereby allow participants to construct or uncover a new narrative about their experiences beyond the one created through their own selected photos and artifacts.

Following a discussion around the participant-generated images, I invited interview participants to look through 45 stock photographs provided by VisualsSpeak® Exploring New Options Image Set for any additional images that reflected how their experiences at the college expanded or limited their ability to achieve their academic, professional, or personal goals.21, 22  VisualsSpeak® has most commonly been used as a tool for professional and organizational development, and in fields related to personal development (e.g., career counseling, mental health services; VisualsSpeak, 2006).23 After participants arranged their selected images, I asked them to share why they selected the images and whether their grouping has any significance, as well as the extent to which these images complemented or contrasted with the participant-generated images shared in the earlier image exercise.24

Participatory ranking exercise. This exercise used participatory ranking methodology (PRM), which seeks to develop a deep understanding of local concerns and priorities by generating a list of issues, ranking these issues, and then exploring the reasons and justifications behind the rankings (Ager, Stark, & Potts, 2010). PRM typically begins with a selected group of local participants to generate responses to a particular research question. Objects are then selected by the group to represent the key themes in their discussion; objects can include physical artifacts, photographs, or responses written on pieces of paper or sticky notes. The group is then asked to rank these objects along a continuum in order of importance. Alternatively, participants can vote for the importance of each item using locally available (and selected) objects (e.g., stones, leaves, pencils, nuts, coins) or marking the paper/sticky notes.

Consistent with this methodology, I invited my interview participants to identify, rank, and elaborate on definitions of student success culled from the community college research and policy literature. I took these various meanings directly from the student e-survey and provided them to participants on laminated 3 in.-by-5 in. cards. I also provided participants with blank cards and a dry erase marker so they could contribute additional meanings of student success not found on the cards provided.25 We then discussed why each meaning was chosen and their ranking order. This type of ranking exercise is appropriate for this study, given my interest in meanings of success and that it has been used in capabilities approach studies as a discussion device and prompt to include participants in the identification, definition, and ranking of various capabilities (e.g., Alkire, 2002).


I audio-recorded the interviews, with participant permission, and imported the transcripts, photographs of the visual images shared and created by students, and photographs of the meanings of student success generated during the participatory ranking exercise into Scrivener (content management software) for analysis. I coded the e-survey responses and interview transcripts according to the capabilities categories generated during my top-down review of the literature and the various capabilities lists (detailed in the next section). I analyzed both the participant- and researcher-generated images for content and compared them to the interview transcripts to capture participants verbal reactions to the visual stimuli, using a a holistic, interpretive lens guided by intuitive inquiry and strategic questions (Saldaña, 2012, p. 52). When needed, I recorded and incorporated modifications to these capabilities and/or additional capabilities into the final pragmatic list of community college capabilities. Neither the e-survey instrument nor the interview questions asked participants specifically about these capabilities categories to prevent privileging these capabilities over other possible responses. For example, student participants were asked in what ways had the college enhanced their life academically, personally, professionally, or civically instead of whether a specific capabilities category was meaningful to them (such as practical reason or bodily safety).


My top-down review of the community college and capabilities approach literatures directly informed my development of my initial theoretical list of community college capabilities by helping me to identify areas that have been shown to be of importance to community college students in general, and identified by higher education students in capabilities-based studies. This initial theoretical list consisted of nine capabilities: practical reason, knowledge and imagination, learning disposition, social relations and networks, respect and recognition, emotional health, bodily health, economic opportunities, and educational resilience. These capabilities are aligned with other capabilities lists, such as the higher education capabilities proposed by Walker (2006a)26 and Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015),27 as well as Nussbaums two universal lists of capabilities that reflect the qualities and opportunities that governments (2000)28 and schools (2010)29 need to develop for a democratic citizenry to flourish.

The student data I collected led me to refine the theoretical list by taking into account the real experiences of DVCC students, which resulted in an empirical list of 12 community college capabilities: 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. These two lists are presented in Table 3, and I have indicated in italics where I made modifications to the empirical capabilities list to highlight where the capabilities categories deviate. Table 3 also includes illustrative excerpts from the student interviews for each of these categories. In the sections that follow, I will address how I generated my theoretical list of community college capabilities and how this list was revisedwith one capability removed and several addedafter I analyzed the student e-survey and interview data.

Table 3. A Theoretical List and an Empirical List of Community College Capabilities


Theoretical List of Community College Capabilities

Empirical List of Community College Capabilities

Illustrative Examples from Student Interviews

Practical reason

Being able to make well-reasoned, informed, critical, independent, and reflective choices about college, career, and life decisions.

Being able to make well-reasoned, informed, critical, independent, and reflective choices about college, career, and life decisions; being able to form and pursue aspirations for the future; being aware of opportunities on campus and how to take advantage of them.

Aaron: They provided me with a sheet with all the prereqs Ill need if Im going to transfer. . . . I know what I need to do for that, and they kind of outline these are the classes you should be taking next semester.

Knowledge and imagination

Being able to acquire knowledge, think critically, and consider multiple perspectives; being able to gain knowledge about transferring to a four-year college.

Being able to acquire knowledge about chosen field, transfer opportunities, and career options; being able to use critical thinking and imagination to consider a diversity of perspectives.

Richard: I was a big impulse guy before, now Im a big anal retentive guy and Ill sit there and Ill research everything. You know, I never used to do that and now I do.

Learning disposition

Being able to have curiosity and a desire for learning; being confident in ones ability to learn, express an opinion, succeed in learning tasks, and being encouraged and supported in learning.

Being able to have curiosity and a desire for learning; being confident in ones ability to learn, express an opinion, succeed in learning tasks; and being encouraged and supported in learning.


Davids participant-generated image.

David: . . . the phrase, empowerment through education. I really feel empowered, I feel fulfilled, I feel accomplished, I feel invigorated.

Social relations and social networks

Being able to participate in a group for learning, working with others to solve problems or tasks; being able to form networks of friendships and belonging for learning support and leisure; mutual trust; being able to be involved in extracurricular activities.

Being able to participate in a group for learning, working with others to solve problems or tasks; being able to form networks of friendships and belonging for learning support and leisure; mutual trust; being able to be involved in extracurricular activities.

Lydia: I do think that the psychology course taught me to be more open with people and open to what other people do or how they function, rather than just feeling like they have to do it this way because this is what I know. So its opened me up to the possibilities of being around other people without so much judgment. Now Im understanding.

Respect and recognition

Being able to have respect for oneself and for others, as well as receiving respect from others; being treated with dignity, not being diminished or devalued because of ones gender, social class, religion, or race. Valuing other languages, other religions and spiritual practices, and human diversity.

Being able to have respect for oneself and for others, as well as receiving respect from others; being treated with dignity, not being diminished or devalued because of ones gender, social class, religion, or race; valuing other languages, other religions and spiritual practices, and human diversity.

Leonel: When I was in high school I didnt really care much about school and my studies and stuff, but once I got here it all changed for me. I started doing good in my classes and I started to get recognized in my family and I started working harder and I became an honor student here. So now I care about it more and Im passionate about it, and I sincerely want to learn and I take my classes and my study very seriously, and I like it.

Emotional health

Not being subject to anxiety or fear, which diminishes learning.

Not being subject to anxiety or fear, which diminishes learning; being confident in ones ability to learn, express an opinion, succeed in learning tasks.

Michael: It just feels like if you do anything wrong in that class he gets upset about it. . . . It kind of feels like you have to put on a sort of different personality, just to kind of make it throughout the entire hour because its that agonizing.

Bodily health

Safety and freedom from all forms of physical and verbal harassment in the school and higher education environment.

Safety and freedom from all forms of physical and verbal harassment in the school and higher education environment; being able to be healthy through access to nourishing food and physical exercise.


Janices researcher-generated image.

Janice: . . . the cafeteria is good food and easily accessible and easy to maneuver around and purchase things. They teach you to be healthy on this campus because youve got to do a lot of walking.

Economic opportunities

Being able to have the knowledge and skills to work to find a job that is personally meaningful; being able to afford college and not incur debt.

Being able to have the knowledge and skills to work to find a job that is personally meaningful; being able to afford college and not incur debt.

Joshua: I love my job right now, the main job that I have, but it doesnt offer me a whole lot of opportunities to do meaningful work . . . it doesnt provide me with a lot of satisfaction that Im having an impact on my community, on people that I desire, in a job.

Educational resilience

Being able to navigate and adapt to college life; persevere academically; be responsive to educational opportunities and adaptive constraints; form and pursue aspirations for the future.

Not included in this list.

Not included in the final list.

Love and care

Not included in this list.

Being able to raise children and take care of other loved ones; being able to balance the needs of loved ones with personal, professional, and academic needs; being a role model; being able to engage in leisure activities.

Miranda: I grew up on mustard sandwiches and I always had holes in my socks, and thankfully, being the oldest, I didnt wear hand-me-downs until I was older and then I wore my moms hand-me-downs . . . so I want my daughter to have clean socks and lots of food and I want her to understand that just because you started with very little doesnt mean you cant end up with a lot . . .

Language competence and confidence

Not included in this list.

Being able to understand, read, write, speak, and communicate with confidence in the language of instruction.

Eddie: Before, I never even thought of [human resources]. I had difficulty talking to people. Being English as my second language was difficult as well. So, I think its helped structure, mentally, just communicating with people, thinking of new ways to express my ideas as well.


Not included in this list.

Being able to be independent and self-directed in learning; freedom of movement around campus, through their program of study, and throughout the world.

Karen: I pretty much pick my courses on my own. For me right now its about meeting the needs of my degree with courses that I can get online, and unfortunately, one of them, Im going to have to probably end up going back to campus. I just havent decided if I want to take the one teacher or not.


Not included in this list.

Having the awareness of the necessity of, and the ability to, build a space for reflection, peace, and happiness.

Lane: I do like how, I feel like I have a weight lifted from here when Im here even though Im stressed sometimes from learning new things, but its still like a big break for me to get away from everything. Yeah, its nice.

The Theoretical List

Although the initial nine capabilities are categories that are consistent with the concerns of community college students and researchers, many of them are generally relevant to all educational institutions. Like most students who enroll in higher education, individuals who attend community college do so in order to develop their abilities to make well-reasoned and well-informed decisions (the capability of practical reason), and to expand their knowledge and ability to consider alternative perspectives (the capability of knowledge and imagination). Their education will also, at some point, lead them to employment and, for community college students in particular, having the ability to pursue higher learning without incurring a high level of debt is of great importance (the capability of economic opportunities; see also Cohen & Brawer, 2008; Cohen et al., 2014; Dowd & Coury, 2006). The higher education and student development literature has also highlighted the important role social networks (the capability of social relations and social networks) play in enhancing students college experience (Astin, 1984, 1985; Tinto, 1975, 1988) and their contribution to traditional measures of student success (i.e., persistence, completion).30

Students also expect to be able to be part of a safe and comfortable college environment free of verbal or physical harassment (the capability of bodily health) or emotional intimidation by other students or college staff (the capability of emotional health). These categories are more broadly conceived in the capabilities approach literature as access to shelter, nourishment, and longevity (Alkire & Black, 1997; Biggeri et al., 2006; Bozalek, 2004; Nussbaum, 2000), being free from physical and verbal violence (Biggeri et al., 2006; Robeyns, 2003; Walker, 2006a, 2006b; Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015), having sexual choice and satisfaction (Nussbaum, 2000), and being free of anxiety and having empathy for others (Biggeri et al., 2006; Walker, 2006a, 2006b; Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015). Although community colleges, as (primarily) non-residential institutions, have little control over students access to adequate shelter or exposure to bodily violence or emotional harassment outside the college environment, they are responsible for ensuring students safety and all-around well-being on campus and during classes.31 These capabilities are also related to students abilities to be confident and curious learners (the capability of learning disposition) and be respected members of the college community (the capability of respect and recognition), as feeling physically and emotionally secure can facilitate more active engagement with coursework and classmates, and participation in college activities (e.g., clubs, organizations, performances, athletic events).

For more than 40 years, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, biologists, and those in other medical fields have used the concept of resilience to explain how individuals are able to bounce back from setbacks and discouragement (Herrman et al., 2011). Education scholars have adapted the concept of resilience to school settings to understand why individuals experience success in school despite risk (OConnor, 2002, p. 855; see also Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000; OConnor, 1997; Rigsby, 1994). Students ability to navigate and adapt to college life and persevere when confronted with academic uncertainty or hardship has also been identified in the capabilities approach literatures as an important influence on individual development (Comim, Qizilbash, & Alkire, 2008; Walker, 2006b; Wilson-Strydom, 2014, 2015), which is why I decided to include educational resilience on my theoretical list of community college capabilities. However, I removed it from my empirical list because it appeared to depend other capabilities instead of being a distinct capability category unto itself (Wilson-Strydom, 2015). For example, educational resilience alone would likely not ensure a successful community college experience or the achievement of a students valued aspirations. Moreover, while the student e-survey and interview data indicated that some students saw themselves as resilient, they often credited their ability to be resilient to the influence and support of important others in their lives (e.g., family, teachers, mentors, employers, other students), which suggests that educational resilience is a product of other capabilities as opposed to something students valued as an outcome of their community college experience.

The Empirical List

After analyzing the student e-survey responses and the student interviews data, I decided to make modifications to the definitions of several capability categories. For example, I refined the capability of knowledge and imagination to include Being able to acquire knowledge about chosen field, transfer opportunities, and career options; being able to use critical thinking and imagination to consider a diversity of perspectives. All of the student interviewees valued DVCCs diversity and appreciated being exposed to different perspectives and experiences. Students also connected their coursework to their ability to pursue their broader career and academic goals. Likewise, several students specifically mentioned their involvement in extracurricular activities (e.g., clubs, organizations, athletic teams) and the personal mentoring they received from faculty, and how these social networks helped them feel more a part of the college. As a result, I refined the capability of social relations and social networks to include being able to be involved in extracurricular activities. I also added four new capabilities that spoke to the experiences of DVCC students based on my review of the empirical data: the capability of language competence and confidence, love and care, autonomy, and refuge. Three of these appear on other capabilities lists (language competence and confidence,32  love and care,33 autonomy34). The capability category of refuge was unique to the students who participated in this study and reflects how DVCC has helped them develop their ability to build a space for reflection and inner peace in their often complex and harried lives.

Language Competence and Confidence

Drawing on the work of Wolff and de-Shalit (2007) and further supported by empirical data, Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015) included the capability category of language competence and confidence in her list of capabilities for university transition. This category is also of relevance to community colleges as an increasing proportion of students are placed in development education English and reading coursework (Bailey et al., 2010; Author, 2008; Cohen et al., 2014; Author, 2008, 2011). Forty percent of incoming degree-seeking or transfer students enrolled at DVCC in Fall 2013 were placed into developmental English and 39% were placed into developmental reading (Desert Valley Community College, 2013a, 2013b). In addition, approximately 3% of DVCC students enrolled during the 20142015 academic year were international (Institute of International Education, 2014), with varying degrees of English fluency. Being able to communicate and participate in class discussions was more likely to be considered very important to e-survey respondents who were non-native English speakers (71%) compared with native English speakers (63%), as well as international students (78% vs. 64%). The student interviews reinforced the importance of this capability for improved language fluency for these student groups, as well as for DVCC students in general; the quotation from Eddie35 provided in Table 3 is an example.

Love and Care

In Biggeri et al.s (2006) survey of childrens conceptualizations of valued capabilities, the authors identified the capability love and care defined as being able to love and be loved by those who care for us and being able to be protected (p. 65). Both the student e-survey and student interview participants talked about how important it was that they be able to take care of their families while they pursued their educational goals (the capability of love and care). The majority of e-survey respondents (92%) said that being able to provide their families with a better life was a very important part of their success as a student, and two thirds (62%) reported that attending DVCC had greatly expanded or somewhat expanded their relationship with their families. The colleges flexible course scheduling (in-person, online classes, evening, and weekend classes) was frequently cited by e-survey respondents and interview participants because it allowed students to balance the needs of their loved ones with the demands of school, work, and personal interests. Students also expressed pride in being able to serve as a role model to their siblings, friends, nieces and nephews, children, and community. For example, in the following comment Justin explains why he selected a photograph of an adult carrying a child on his shoulders (Figure 3):

Figure 3. Researcher-generated image selected by Justin


And that [Figure 3] reminds me of the fact that Im trying to build a future for my kids to ride my shoulders on. And thats basically as simple as it gets. Im really trying to start a new legacy. My dad struggled with going back to school until his 50s, and Im the first male in my entire family line that ever graduated from high school. Im going to be the second male in my family line to graduate from college. So if Im able to take the momentum that my dad struggled with for, I dont know, 20 plus years and add that into . . . yeah, Im late, but Im starting the momentum of changing my family tree. If my kids can ride on my shoulders for that, then Im more than happy to do that.


Autonomy has been identified on other education-related capabilities lists as an important and valued capability, and has commonly been defined as being able to have control over ones time and choices (Biggeri et al., 2006; Robeyns, 2003; Walker, 2006a, 2006b), as well as being an independent and self-directed learner (Walker, 2008). The DVCC e-survey respondents and interview participants also expressed an appreciation for autonomy and their ability to be in control of their education and, more broadly, their lives. The majority of e-survey respondents (89%) reported that being able to have more control over their lives was a very important indicator of their success as students, and the majority of respondents identified DVCC as having greatly expanded or somewhat expanded their ability to have control over their education (83%) and over their own life (78%). The importance of autonomy and control were echoed during the student interviews as well. Consider this exchange I had with Aaron during the participatory ranking exercise (Figure 4), where he ranked first having more control over my life:

Figure 4. Participatory-ranking exercise results for Aaron



The top is just having more control over my life. I feel with being more educated, the more Ill open myself to the world around me and Ill be able to make decisions and be able to deal with things that happen in a more positive way instead of just letting things happen to me. Ill be able to put myself in situations where Im in control.


Is this changed for you now, or is this in the future?


I think its starting to affect me, like I said, with some of things, like going to the museum to just being able to communicate with coworkers and family and stuff, and friends. Im being more assertive. Ive been really passive in a lot of my relationships with other people, so its led to some clashing, just not being able to communicate, cause if people, if you dont say anything to them, they just put it in their story. And so Im starting to become more active in my role with the relationships I have.


While the e-survey responses emphasized how the community college had enhanced the development of students other capabilitiese.g., the ability to forge and maintain social relationships, acquire the skills to enter the workforce and secure employment, and expand self-confidence and educational self-conceptit was only through the student interviews and the visual elicitation data that this notion of the college serving as a refuge became apparent. Refuge as a capability category reflects students ability to build a space for reflection, communion, peace, and happiness. It is distinct from the capabilities of emotional and bodily integrity in that it recognizes that the space students occupy and their surrounding environment play an important part in their development as individualsnot just as learners or as (future or current) workers. This notion, of DVCC serving as a space for refuge, was well-expressed by Lane, an older first-generation mother of two who worked full-time in addition to pursuing her nursing degree: I feel like I have a weight lifted when Im here, even though Im stressed sometimes from learning new things, but its still like a big break for me to get away from everything. Yeah, its nice.


In Alkires (2002) theoretical exploration of the dimensions of human development, she rhetorically asks, Why does one need to specify dimensions? Is it not enough to observe that income is not enough, and let whatever dimensions are relevant to the activity at hand surface naturally? (p. 182). Much of the community college literature has yet to observe that academic and economic dimensions are not enough to fully capture the colleges broader contribution, let alone consider what alternative dimensions might be useful and relevant to community college students. Although there are researchers and practitioners who recognize that these student outcome measures are insufficient given the community colleges diverse missions and student population (e.g., Alfred, Ewell, Hudgins, & McClenney, 1999; Bailey, 2012; Crisp & Mina, 2012; Epstein, 2010; Jaschik, 2013; Jones, 2009; Lax, n.d.; Ramaley, 2012; Sbrega, 2012; Shugart, 2013), few have proposed a comprehensive set of counter metrics. Worse yet, they often lean in to the existing metrics, suggesting that even more academic and employment data be collected instead of expanding out into different areas of student success that are of value to studentsor, even, interrogating what student success means.

The U.S. Department of Educations Committee on Measures of Student Success is one example of efforts to redefine community college student outcomes. In its 2011 report, the Committee recommended that the federal graduation rate include additional cohorts of students to accommodate the community colleges diverse student enrollment and the collection of better data on student employment and earnings outcomes, which served as their alternative measures of success. Disaggregating the graduation rate data by part-time students and students level of academic preparedness, and extending the period of time for tracking student outcomes, are refinements that tinker at the edge of student success reform. To this end, this paper presented a framework that appreciates the complexities involved in measuring the nuanced and multifaceted concept of student success at community colleges in the United States. Moreover, it attempted to reclaim the real needs and successes of this very large and diverse student population by acknowledging the voices behind the numbersasking students what educational outcomes they value and then considering how institutional policies and programs enhance or constrain students abilities to flourish and live a life that is professionally and personally meaningful. The result is two capabilities-based lists informed by literature and theory, and then by empirical data, which are intended to serve as a starting point for future research and reflection.

It is important to note that the theoretical and empirical capabilities lists presented herein are not intended to be mutually exclusive nor of equal importance to all students; capabilities expand and diminish over time as students priorities, goals, and needs change over the course of their educational experiences (Biggeri et al., 2006).37 Furthermore, the proposed lists are non-hierarchical, multidimensional, and interdependentthat is, the capabilities are not presented in a particular order and should not be considered separate, siloed categories. They are distinct, but related, as one may provide support for another; emotional health affects a students confidence and social engagement, but is itself something of value independent from other capabilities (Robeyns, 2003). These lists are reminders that the valued doings and beings (Dreze & Sen, 1989, p. 12) for students are more than their persistence and completion rates, as exemplified in the quotation that begins this paper. The students who participated in this study consistently emphasized the personal dimension of their higher education journey and their desire to be recognized as more than a number, more than the sum of their test scores and academic enrollment decisions. As the empirical capabilities list I generated suggests, being a successful community college student means more to students than just getting good grades, showing up for class, graduating on time, and securing a job. The students I surveyed and interviewed valued the ability to become respected members of the college community, being able to be emotionally and physically healthy, and being able to care for loved ones and take care of themselves by having space to be reflective. Moreover, these categories of success are not independent of one another; they are mutually informed and work together to make up a students life in its entirety, as Rizal, an older returning student with two small children, observed during our interview:

One thing Im learning about life in general is you cant just separate your professional life from your personal life. It doesnt exist; you have one life. . . . Being able to balance my personal life and my professional life means that you have to be able to look at it as a whole, you know what I mean? You cant just separate it, it just doesnt work that way. For me at least, what Ive learned so far. Apply what I learned to my life is not just what I learned in class. Its what I learned how to go to class, how to balance class, how to balance whats going on, to be able to see what people are talking about, understand five years down the road whats going to be important, what is really there.

Future research is needed to explore in more depth the practical application of this list, as well as the policy implications of using a capabilities perspective and the ways in which it can complement and extend current conceptions of student success. Consistent with the capabilities approach, these capabilities categories should be developed at the local level to better account for the context of each community college. That said, the education community can use these theoretical and empirical lists as a starting point to examine whether the capabilities I identified as being of value to DVCC students are also valued by community college students in general. This kind of framework could also complement existing efforts to gauge campus climate and student engagement, and would have the added benefit of being locally developed and, therein, better aligned with the values of the college community. DVCC, for example, administers the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (Desert Valley Community College, 2011), which allows the college to assess and monitor student engagement, and benchmark survey results against the district and community colleges nationally. While the survey provides some insight into students involvement in classes and campus-based activities (Community College Survey of Student Engagement, 2005), it does not address the capabilities of respect and recognition, emotional and bodily health, love and care, language competence and confidence, autonomy, and refuge. A capabilities-based survey would complement and extend community colleges existing data collection efforts to more inclusively account for the contribution of the college to students lives.

Although the community college mission has diversified over time (Beach, 2011; Cohen et al., 2014; Thelin, 2011), it continues to be a singular institution in the American higher education landscapea uniquely democratic innovation open to all individuals seeking higher learning (Cohen & Brawer, 2008; The Presidents Commission on Higher Education, 1947).36 The challenge the community college currently faces is how to retain its identity as a nonselective and community-based institution when balancing multiple responsibilities, shrinking appropriations, and the pressure to provide evidence of institutional effectiveness. Rhoads and Valadez (1996) suggest that one possible path forward is for the community college to recommit itself to democratic management, policies, pedagogy, and outcomes. Sen and Nussbaums work on capabilities strongly aligns with this more humanistic view of education, one in which education and human freedom are closely linked (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007). It may seem impractical in our current political era to expect institutions to forge their own more democratic vision of their value and contribution to the students in their community, given the pervasive use of market-based perspectives in higher education (Levin, 2014) that often seek to reduce the complexity of the college student experience to some quantifiable single statistic. The perspectives voiced by the participants in my study, however, would suggest that many, if not all, community colleges are already engaging in this kind of holistic, student-centered work, but are lacking a way to adequately document it. Reframing the educational experience around capabilities and capabilities development provides collegesand education institutions more generallywith a new, more responsive and democratic set of tools to use in understanding the all the ways in which community colleges help students build and sustain meaningful lives.


1. One exception would be persistence and completion rates at private, for-profit colleges and universities that enroll similar student populations and have overall academic outcomes comparable to community colleges (U.S. Department of Education, 2012).

2. This approach is also referred to in the literature as the capability approach. I intentionally use the plural form to acknowledge that student well-being consists of multiple dimensions.

3. For example, if a student enters the institution with background characteristics a, b, and c, then the institution can provide programs x, y, and z and persistence or timely graduation will be the result.

4. These assumptions include institutional factors and student characteristics that contribute to retention, attrition, completion, and employment.

5. For example, Nussbaum (2000) proposes a capabilities set that a government must ensure for its citizens: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses, imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation (or respect), living in communion with other species, play, and control over ones environment.

6. This paper focuses specifically on the methodology used to develop a capabilities set. Future work will consider how these various components interact (i.e., the role of conversion factors in shaping valued capabilities or achieved functionings).

7. For example, Robeyns (2003) capabilities list was informed by the earlier work of Alkire and Black (1997), Erickson (1992), and Nussbaum (1995, 2000). Walker (2006a, 2006b) and Biggeri et al. (2006) drew on Robeyns (2003) to develop their capabilities lists, while Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015) utilized Walker (2006a) and her review of these other capabilities lists.

8. The names of the college and the student interview participants are pseudonyms.

9. The traditional college student is generally considered to be an individual between the ages of 18 and 24 who enrolls full time in a four-year degree program directly following high school graduation, lives in an on-campus dormitory, does not work or works 20 hours or less a week, is prepared for college-level coursework, and has a family background with the social and economic capital to navigate higher education. Embedded within this idealized view of the typical college student are assumptions about race, ethnicity, gender, and social class. As Deil-Amen (2011) points out, an increasing proportion of college students today do not fit the profile of the traditional college student. However, community colleges serve the majority of these nontraditional students, which makes them some of the most heterogeneous postsecondary institutions in the United States.

10. The graduation rate defined by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) captures only a small percentage of all students enrolled at the institution. At DVCC, 34% of entering students were full-time, first-time in 2014 (U.S. Department of Education, 2015b).

11. The three-year graduation rate reflected first-time, full-time degree- or certificate-seeking students who began in Fall 2010.

12. Comparison graduation rate data for the district was not available through IPEDS Data Center. However, graduation rates for the other community colleges in DVCCs district ranged from a low of 4% to a high of 20%, with most of the colleges reporting a graduation rate between 12% and 17% (U.S. Department of Education, 2015b).

13. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that approximately 33% of first-time students transferred from a community college to another institution between the 20062007 and 20112012 academic years (Hossler et al., 2012).

14. Comparison transfer rate data for the district was not available through IPEDS Data Center. However, transfer rates for the other community colleges in DVCCs district ranged from a low of 23% to a high of 43%, with DVCC showing the third lowest transfer rate in the district (U.S. Department of Education, 2015b).

15. These percentages were calculated by summing (1) the number of students under the age of 18 who were removed from the file (2,172), (2) the 20 students who automatically opted-out of all SurveyMonkey surveys, and (3) the 6,209 students enrolled at the institutional site who met the e-survey requirements but requested that their directory information not be sharedtotaling approximately 25,481 students during the study time frame (or 23,309 students over the age of 18).

16. I defined key items as those that were of primary importance to the research project, such as those questions that asked students what it meant for them to be a successful student, to rank various meanings of student success, and to what extent DVCC expanded or limited different areas of their life.

17. The margin of error for the total sample is +/- 3.076% with a 95% confidence level.

18. The use of visual images as a reliable tool for understanding social reality is not without critics (Schratz, Walker, & Schratz-Hadwich, 1995).

19. In a pilot study testing the use of these artifacts within the context of a semi-structured interview conducted in April 2014 at DVCC, student participants brought in images reflecting their participation in student leadership organizations and motivational posters from national leadership conferences.

20. Very few participants asked for clarification on this activity, although 10 of the 40 students interviewed did not bring images with them statingwhen asked for images during the interviewthat they either did not understand the instructions, forgot to bring them, or did not know they were to generate images.

21. VisualsSpeak® was founded in 2005 with the intention of enhancing communication by creating a bridge between the verbal and the visual (VisualsSpeak Our Founders, 2013).

22. The stock images available in the VisualsSpeak Image Set fall into four broad categories and 12 subcategories: life (activities, concepts, spirituality); nature (animals and birds, country, plants); people (adults, children, and groups); and things (cities and structures, household and personal items, and tools and machines).

23. I decided to supplement my interviews with this additional visual exercise because not all community college students may have access to images or artifacts. Furthermore, it allows participants to create an unexpected story, potentially different from the internal narrative they illustrate through their participant-generated images.

24. Two student participants did not participate in this activity; one participant had limited English and we had difficulty communicating about the images. The other student interview took place as a last-minute phone conversation, which prevented the images from being shared and discussed.

25. None of the interview participants chose to provide additional meanings of student success.

26. Practical reason; educational resilience; knowledge and imagination; learning disposition; social relations and social networks; respect, dignity, and recognition; emotional integrity, emotions; bodily integrity.

27. Practical reason; educational resilience; knowledge and imagination; learning disposition; social relations and social networks; respect, dignity, and recognition; emotional integrity, emotions; bodily integrity; language competence and confidence.

28. Life; bodily health; bodily integrity; senses, imagination, and thought; emotions; practical reason; affiliation (or respect); living in communion with other species; play; control over ones environment.

29. Develop students capacity to see the world from the viewpoint of other people, particularly those whom their society tends to portray as lesser, as mere objects; teach attitudes toward human weakness and helplessness that suggest that weakness is not shameful and the need for others not unmanly; teach children not to be ashamed of need and incompleteness but to see these as occasions for cooperation and reciprocity; develop the capacity for genuine concern for others, both near and distant; undermine the tendency to shrink from minorities of various kinds in disgust, thinking of them as lower and contaminating; teach real and true things about other groups (racial, religious, and sexual minorities; people with disabilities), so as to counter stereotypes and the disgust that often goes with them; promote accountability by treating each child as a responsible agent; vigorously promote critical thinking, the skill and courage it requires to raise a dissenting voice.

30. Astins Theory of Student Involvement, for example, maintains that the more mental, emotional, and physical time a student has to engage with faculty, other students, and institutional experiences, the more successful that student will be in his or her coursework. A highly involved student, for example, would live on campus, devote time to studying, frequently interact with faculty, and participate in sports, student government, clubs, or fraternal associations. Tintos Model of Institutional Departure, on the other hand, emphasizes the extent to which the students attitudes and values align with those of his or her faculty and peers, and the students ability to integrate into the life of the institution and establish group membership.I critiqued the use of these theories earlier in the article, along with other dominant theories of college impact. However, to address community college student success, they do suggest that social involvement and interaction play some part in shaping a students college experience.

31. All higher education institutions in the United States that participate in the federal financial aid programs authorized by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 must annually disclose campus crime statistics in accordance with the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act of 1990. This can serve as one indicator of the campus environment, along with institutional surveys to gauge students well-being (e.g., Community College Survey of Student Engagement).

32. Wilson-Strydom (2014, 2015)

33. Biggeri et al. (2006)

34. Biggeri et al. (2006), Bozalek (2004), Robeyns (2003), Walker (2006a, 2008 A OR B?)

35. Before, I never even thought of [human resources]. I had difficulty talking to people. Being English as my second language was difficult as well. So, I think its helped structure, mentally, just communicating with people, thinking of new ways to express my ideas as well.

36. This is not meant to imply that community colleges are monolithic institutions; some states have public, two-year institutions with a more technical focus (e.g., Washington), while others have a long history of serving more of a transfer function (e.g., California). What these institutions have in common, however, is that they are public institutions with a (primarily) open admissions policy that does not bar enrollment based on previous schooling or test scores (although some courses or majors may have their own requirements).

37. While Biggeri et al. (2006) are referring specifically to children, and how childrens capabilities change over time, the research on adult development indicates that it evolves over time and is not static (Smith & DeFrates-Densch, 2009).


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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: 10/22/2021 11:55:02 PM

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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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