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Hanging In, Stopping Out, Dropping Out: Community College Students in an Era of Precarity

by Beth Ann Hart - 2019

Background/Context: Sociologists of education have documented community college students’ high postsecondary aspirations and low persistence and college completion rates. Recent research suggests that community colleges can improve student outcomes by developing structural reforms: streamlining curricula, expanding vocational programs, and improving advising. The emphasis on structural reform overlooks the ways in which community college students—who are disproportionately disadvantaged—are constrained from benefiting from even the most progressive structural reforms. This research builds on structural models by examining both the conditions and constraints under which students endeavor to succeed in the community college.

Research Question: The research questions guiding this analysis are: (a) What keeps students from moving in smooth and uninterrupted ways through community college? (b) Do structural reform efforts alone make sense for community college students in general and a more diverse student body in particular?

Research Design: This study draws on in-depth interviews with 45 community college students at two California community colleges. Students represent a range of racial/ethnic groups, ages, and traditional and nontraditional backgrounds.

Findings/Results: The findings revealed that forms of institutional instability identified in previous research interact with unpredictability in students’ lives, leading students to engage in “security work” (Cooper, 2014) intended to accommodate their educations to precarious circumstances. Students engage in security work across two dimensions: managing income flow (including paid work and financial aid) and managing care of families, food, housing, and transportation.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Findings revealed a feedback loop between precarity in community colleges and precarity in students’ lives. This article contributes to theories of student persistence by arguing that the framework of precarity importantly complements structural explanations for student outcomes in community colleges.

In the current era of college for all (Rosenbaum, 2001), most youth are encouraged to pursue a college degree, regardless of interest, preparation, socioeconomic status, or ability.  Parents, high school counselors, policymakers, and political leaders alike contribute to this widespread discourse. The community college system plays a vital role in enabling college for all: It is the largest postsecondary sector and provides access to higher education for nearly half of the nations undergraduates (Snyder & Dillow, 2015). In the last two decades, aspirations for four-year degrees have become much more widespread. Over 80% of entering community college students say their educational goal is to earn a bachelors degree or higher (Horn & Skomsvold, 2011).

Despite students high aspirations and despite the hope that community colleges can serve as a stepping-stone to four-year degrees, community colleges have struggled to meet measures of success like student persistence, degree completion, and transfer. As many as a quarter of community college students who enroll in the fall semester do not return in the spring, and, of those who do return in the spring, 20% do not return in the fall of the next year (Xu & Jaggars, 2011). Fewer than four out of every 10 community college students complete any type of degree or certificate within six years of enrollment (Radford, Berkner, Wheeless, & Shepherd, 2010). While some students are still enrolled after six years, most students leave school without earning a credential.1 Students aspire toward higher-education attainments, but relatively few find success within community colleges.

This paper analyzes barriers to community college students smooth and steady progress toward their degrees. Drawing on exploratory interviews with a range of traditional and nontraditional students from two community colleges, I argue that students success is hindered by two interrelated forms of insecurityinstitutional precarity at community colleges and precarity in students livesand that they intersect and interact in ways that cause students to deviate from their paths to completion. These forms of precarity reinforce and simultaneously condition one another, leaving students to engage in security work (Cooper, 2014) to accommodate their lives around their education. Finally, I argue for the importance of examining student persistence and completion through the broader lens of precarity.


Community colleges were established as open-access institutions designed to benefit nontraditional students. The community college system dramatically expanded in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of historical, political, and economic forces, including difficulty finding employment during the early 1970s depression, the extension of educational benefits to World War II veterans, the postwar baby boom, and the decline in blue-collar jobs (Brint & Karabel, 1989). Community colleges, with their open-access admission policies, were established to accommodate students who did not fit the traditional profile of four-year college attendees: young, middle-class, male, childless, and full-time. Community colleges have always been the institution of choice for working-class people, people whose parents had not attended college, people of color, adults, and veterans (Brint & Karabel, 1989, p. 44).

Most disadvantaged students continue to rely on community colleges; indeed, the community college is an ever-more vital institutional linkage in the mobility path of the disadvantaged. An increasing number of Black and Latino students attend community college; Black students increased from 11% of students at two-year public colleges in 1976 to 15% in 2013. The number of Latino students increased more dramatically, from 5.6% to over 20% in the same time period (Snyder & Dillow, 2015). Thirty-eight percent of students at public two-year colleges are 25 years old or older, compared to just one-fifth of students at public four-year colleges (Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Of the students who work full time and attend college, nearly half attend community colleges while only one fifth attend public four-year colleges (Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Forty-four percent of low-income high school students attend community colleges immediately after high school, compared to only 17 percent of high-income students (Provasnik & Planty, 2008). Compared to students in four-year institutions, community college students are more likely to be older, less economically well-off students of color who work full time and attend college part time. Community colleges, thus, are a pathway for disadvantaged and nontraditional students.

In the last 20 years, there has been a cultural shift toward the encouragement of college for all, a widespread narrative that suggests all studentsirrespective of academic preparation, the likelihood of earning a degree, or future professional goalscan and should attend college (Rosenbaum, 2001). In a historically unprecedented way, people are encouraged to attain four-year degrees for the clear financial payoff (higher earnings go to those with a bachelors degree). Subsequently, this broadly inclusive framework has changed expectations for community colleges. Policymakers claim that community colleges should do more than simply offer a two-year degree or provide learning opportunities for people across the life course. They are now expected to produce more ambitious outcomes: to confer two-year degrees and transfer people to four-year institutions in a timely way.


Much of the literature on improving outcomes at community colleges has focused on the role of institutional practices in creating student success (Spady, 1970). Acknowledging low rates of completion at community colleges, some have proposed a student integration model, based on the argument that the academic and social arrangements of the institution conditioned students decision to depart from college. Tinto (1975, 1993), for example, noted that while students characteristics and backgrounds influenced their decision to drop out, the institutional determinants of separation or completion were more central. Students experiences within the social systems (e.g., volunteering for the student newspaper or holding a work-study job) and the academic systems (e.g., in courses and in interactions with advisers and instructors) of colleges largely influenced the extent to which they would feel integrated into the campus community. Positive social and academic experiences would reinforce persistence because they deepen students commitment to the goal of college completion. Empirical tests of Tintos model compellingly showed how institutional deficiencies played a significant causal role in students dropout rates.

In agreement with this research, other studies report that the organizational complexities of the community college obstruct students from moving smoothly through college. Community colleges offer little structure and guidance to help students navigate bureaucratic hurdles, leaving students with limited, vague, or incorrect information about basic college processes and confusion about course catalogs and program requirements (Gardenhire-Crooks, Collado, & Ray, 2006; Goldrick-Rab, 2010; Person, Rosenbaum, & Deil-Amen, 2006). Research on counselors identified detrimental advising practices that lowered students ambitions by cooling them out and redirecting them into vocational instead of academic pursuits (Clark, 1960).

Researchers argue that community colleges could do more to integrate and advise students by making structural changes to their policies and programming. Bailey, Jaggars, & Jenkins (2015), for example, suggest implementing a guided pathways model, using clearly structured, coherent pathways that direct students by tracking distinct learning outcomes, streamlining course sequences, and building support from academic advisors and departments (also see Scott-Clayton, 2015). Researchers and policy analysts recommend other structural reforms, such as accelerating program entry, innovative curricula, and more effective delivery of student services. The institutional perspective has remained central to the social science understanding of college retention and completion, especially at community colleges (Brint, 2003). We have a great deal of data about the practices and structures of community colleges: How do they intersect with the conditions of students lives?


The institutional approach identifies the structural context for understanding some students failure or success, but structural solutions deemphasize external factors that shape students ability to succeed in college. In recent years, in the context of growing inequality in the United States, there has been greater interest in examining the larger system of social stratification in which students are embedded and how it might explain low rates of degree completion.

Scholars using the framework of precarity have begun to address this issue. Precarity is a concept that was initially developed to explain the growth of new workplace arrangements that generate employment unpredictability and worker insecurity (Kalleberg, 2009). However, recent research has argued that precarious work is not just an employment problem: It has many consequences that transcend the boundaries of particular workplaces (Pugh, 2015). Previous research has shown that changes in the workplace and growing income inequality have created a new sense of risk and insecurity in peoples home and personal lives, relationships, and plans for the future (Cooper, 2014; Pugh, 2015; Wallulis, 1998). I argue that this precarity is also an undercurrent in students academic lives, shaping the way they engage with their education, make choices, and sustain enrollment. Whereas many employers and the state were responsible for managing risk in the past (e.g., helping people survive during periods of unemployment, find job training, and pay for the costs of education and healthcare), to an increasing degree people are individually responsible for absorbing the risks and costs of living in a neoliberal economy characterized by global competition, automation, business reorganization and downsizing, the decline of unions, and the disappearance of long and well-defined career paths (Hacker, 2008). Many must engage in security work, the economic and emotional work done to maintain financial stability and manage the emotional burden of uncertainty (Cooper, 2014). For Cooper, security work is a strategy that families employ during turbulent economic times to deal with their uncertainty about the future.

Preliminary studies that take precarity as a point of reference show that students encounter a host of circumstances outside the college that make it difficult for them to move toward a credential or degree. Despite working more hours at paid jobs, community college students experience significant material hardships: They often have difficulty covering college costs and have to provide monetary support to their families for food, transportation, or housing costs (in addition to the costs of books and supplies) (Bozick, 2007; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2013). In a recent report, Goldrick, Broton, and Eisenberg (2015) found that half of all community college students struggle with food and/or housing insecurity. When students must balance the responsibilities of paid work, family, and school, it is difficult to remain enrolled in college (Matus-Grossman & Gooden, 2002). For these reasons, community college students frequently stop-out, or leave college with the intention to return, which is associated with lower graduation rates (Terriquez & Gurantz, 2014).

Descriptive data about community college students lives is important, but to date we lack a fine-grained analysis of the mechanisms connecting students lives to community college structures, particularly in the context of the 21st-century neoliberal economy. To advance such an analysis, this paper asks two questions. First, what keeps students from moving in smooth and uninterrupted ways through community college? Second, do structural reform efforts alone make sense for community college students in general and a more diverse student body in particular? I argue that instead of relying on narrow structural models, it is necessary to hone in on the conditions and constraints under which students endeavor to succeed in the community college, and the work they engage in to reconcile insecurity within their own lives and the colleges they attend. Moreover, it is necessary to understand how the structure of the community college both feeds into and recreates the tenuous conditions of students lives.

This paper examines the complex interplay of institutional and individual dynamics as they are embedded in a context of precarity. The findings reported here complicate the notion that simply giving students more perfect information or providing more structured pathways will enable them to follow a linear path through higher education. They suggest that trying to integrate students without addressing the broader sources of societal- and individual-level precariousness and inequality will render structural policies alone inadequate.


I analyze data from in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 45 community college students from two community colleges in Northern California: one small rural community college and one suburban midsize community college.2 The number of cases was determined by saturation (Small, 2009), or the point at which little new information was gleaned from subsequent interviews.

With more than 2.1 million students on 113 campuses, the California Community Colleges is the largest system of higher education in the United States. One in every four community college students in the nation attends a California community college (California Community Colleges Chancellors Office, 2015). The student population of Foothills College3 is approximately 60% White, 24% Latino, 3% African American, and 4% Asian. In the 20082009 cohort, 47.7% of students completed a degree, certificate, or transferred. The student population of Yolo College is 45% Latino, 30% White, 9% Asian, and 3% African American. In the 20082009 cohort, 35.1% of students completed a degree, certificate, or transferred. Over one third of students on both campuses are over 24 years old.

I recruited students from classes in traditional and vocational programs, including Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, Chicano Studies, Business Communications, Spreadsheets in Business, Chemistry, and Issues in Diversity. I recruited potential participants by making a brief announcement about the project at the beginning or end of class. Interested students provided their name and contact information on a sign-up sheet. Seventy-five individuals signed up. I later contacted them by email or phone to schedule interviews.


Interviews took place at the campus coffee shop, cafeteria, or a café off campus, according to students preferences. The semi-structured interviews covered topics including mentor relationships, participation in campus activities, course difficulty and success, pathways through higher education, and curricular decision-making. (See Appendix A for a complete list of questions.) Interviews averaged about one hour, ranging from 3690 minutes. Students received no monetary compensation for their participation, but I always offered to purchase a beverage for them; most students accepted those offers.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) identifies nontraditional students with reference to choices and behaviors that increase their risk of attrition. They suggest three criteria for identifying nontraditional studentsenrollment patterns, financial and family status, and high school graduation status (Choy, 2002).4 Research suggests that these characteristics are associated with risk of attrition at both four-year and community colleges (Radford, Cominole, & Skomsvold, 2015). NCES analysts further categorize nontraditional students into three distinct groupsminimally nontraditional, moderately nontraditional, and highly nontraditionalbased on the number of criteria with which the student identifies.5 The more nontraditional characteristics the student has, the lower the probability he or she will succeed in attaining a degree or certificate (The College Board, 2008). Nontraditional students are overrepresented in community colleges: Of college students with four or more of these characteristics, half attend community colleges while only 15% attend public four-year colleges (Radford et al., 2015).

Of the students in my sample, eight were traditional, 14 minimally nontraditional, 15 moderately nontraditional, and eight highly nontraditional. Eighteen were men and 27 women. They represent a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds: 30 students identified as White, 11 as Latina/o, two as Black, and two as Asian or Pacific Islander. Students median age was 27 at the time of the interview; their ages ranged from 1857 years. This study is unique in that it focuses on a range of traditional and nontraditional students, which allows us to examine whether traditional status influences students experiences. Based on previous literature that points to structural issues within colleges, I expected to find clear and rational explanations from nontraditional students about how institutional deficiencies within the college had delayed their progress.

Interviews were digitally recorded and transcribed by myself and a team of undergraduate research assistants. Transcripts were analyzed using Dedoose, a qualitative data analysis software. Using an iterative coding process, I drew on the extended case method to both inform and extend existing theories about student persistence (Burawoy, 1998). In the first review of the data, I analyzed and coded the interview transcripts line-by-line using an open-coding technique, which involved identifying major thematic categories. I noted the patterns and themes that arose in participants responses and incorporated these themes into a coding structure. In this initial stage of analysis, I simultaneously ascribed codes to units of text and created new codes as unique themes arose in the data (Esterberg, 2002). Coding categories were developed based on the participants own words, as well as my understanding of concepts within existing literature on student persistence and success. Some of my most commonly used codes, and the themes that emerged as the findings of this article, were: course failure and withdrawal, course schedule, balancing obligations, home environment, and transportation. For example, I applied the code course schedule when students spoke to me about how they chose their classes for the semester and home environment when students talked about a characteristic of the place they were living, such as whether they were doubling up with other family members. During the second stage of analysis, I reviewed all of the coding excerpts thematically, examining all of the quotes tied to a particular code. In this wave of analysis, I added subcategories of codes that allowed me to focus and clarify the meaning of the data. For example, under the code for balancing obligations I included subcodes for different types of obligations that students managed, such as  work and family. Appendix B provides a sample of a coded statement from an interview.

To drill deeper into the findings, I examined the frequency with which each code was applied to an interview. I assigned demographic descriptors (such as race, age, gender, veteran status, and traditional or nontraditional status) to each interview transcript, which allowed me to view the number of excerpts that were associated with a particular code separately for each demographic subgroup. This final state of analysis allowed me to examine, for example, whether the use of codes such as not using campus support were concentrated among nontraditional students.


Students could not count on the community college to provide a stable and reliable environment in which to earn their degrees. The community college itself is precarious due to overwhelming organizational complexity, unpredictability of classes, limited support from counselors, and resource shortages in general.6 Consistent with prior research, institutional precarity in the community college itself creates barriers to students full engagement with academics.

Multitudes of First-Generation Students Who Lack Middle-Class Cultural Capital

Community colleges, like four-year colleges, have complex policies and curricular requirements that students must interpret. Students had unclear or inaccurate information about basic processes, their options, and the implications of their choices. Students lacked skills and knowledge about how to interact with advisors, administrators, and instructors, choose courses and enroll, and complete financial aid forms. They were commonly confused about both the level of their degreeassociates degree, associates degree for transfer, or certificateand the subject matter, their program requirements, and how long it would take them to graduate. Their lack of savvy about navigating their programs was likely compounded by the fact that many were first-generation students and lacked well-informed parental insight on their efforts. Even many of the most privileged community college students in this study, those who were able to live at home, work minimally or not at all, and attend full-time, had limited access to college knowledge because they were often the first in their families to attend college.

High StudentCounselor Ratios

Because many students lacked skills and knowledge, they required assistance from institutional actors to navigate and thrive in the community college environment. However, most students felt they were unable to get the help they needed from counselors. Many students reported receiving inconsistent or even incorrect information from different counselors, which they believed hindered their ability to finish their degrees on time. Students also expressed frustration that counselors were rushed and unable to answer their questions within a 15-minute appointment window. Students felt that counselors could only provide curricular advice about their community college, and not information that students were seeking about major, career choice, or transfer experience.7

Fluctuating and Unpredictable Course Offerings

Information complexity was exacerbated by resource deficits. Students could not always count on getting the classes they needed to complete their degrees. Many students mentioned that colleges dropped courses at the last minute because of low enrollment, leaving them to hustle to find replacements. In addition to classes getting dropped, many of the classes in the course catalog were listed but never offered. When colleges did not offer the classes students needed, they were left with the option of dropping out or finding another college. Limited course offerings often placed students in the difficult position of needing to take classes outside of their program requirements in order to keep their high-priority enrollment status. When the community college dropped classes at the last minute or offered a limited number of classes, students were often forced to make irrational enrollment decisions in the scramble to find classes, take classes at another college, or drop out entirely.

In several ways, including cancelling classes, not providing adequate classes for students to finish their degrees, and providing minimal advising, the community college is implicated in dampening students success.


My interviewees routinely engaged in security work of the type identified by Cooper (2014), managing risks and responsibilities related to the organization of the community college, employment, and family. Following Cooper, I use the term security work to describe the emotional and financial work that students do to maintain their community college enrollment and ensure long-term economic security. I find that students engage in security work across two dimensions: managing income flow and managing unpaid second shifts. First, students are required to maintain labor force participationusually in menial, poorly paid jobs scheduled on an erratic basis, which permit them some degree of flexibilityin order to afford college. They also engage in the unpaid work of juggling income sources (including but not restricted to financial aid) and the bureaucracies that award them. Second, students work second shifts, taking care of and provisioning for families, including elders and children, as well as maintaining housing and transportation.


Paid Employment

Unpredictable jobs made it difficult for students to create and stick with an academic plan. Students frequently modified their school schedulesmoving between part-time and full-time, day or night classes, online and in-person classesto align with their work schedules. Unfortunately, many students were in the position of needing to choose work shifts over classes. Balancing school and work was a constant worry, as their school schedule changed every semester and they held multiple jobs while attending school. Students who could not sync their work and school schedules had to resort to solutions that ultimately slowed their progress. For example, students might drop a class, enroll in fewer units than they had anticipated, or even take a class below their level. Some students disclosed having to drop out of school altogether because they could not reconcile their work and school schedules. Rosemary, a 24-year-old White student who worked full time, pointed out how she took a lower-level English class because it fit with her work schedule: The English class that Im taking right now is not up to my level. I had to go a class before just because it wasnt available. Work, unfortunately, could lead students to make choices that blocked their academic progress.

These financial complexities and constraints limited students ability to engage in other campus activities. Rachel, a 27-year-old White student who, like Rosemary, worked full time, wanted to become more involved on campus, but was unable to take a work-study job that was offered to her. The inconsistency, seasonability, and limited hours made work-study jobs off limits. While she heard about a work-study position as a tutor and wanted to include tutor on her resume, Rachel thought such jobs were for students who dont need to make an income to survive:

You can only work 26 hours when youre on campus. Theres a maximum for any student. . . . And its seasonal, only when schools in session. My logic was: I need a real job, I cant work those other jobs. I dont have enough hours. Being in a situation where I had rentand I had to be able to make it every monthI had to have a dependable, consistent income. . . . Its kind of sad. Because I would have loved to be a tutor.

Students were not able to say no to work; if a shift came open, they felt they had to take it. Students wished that they could be more committed to school, but the financial necessity of work limited their commitment. As Emily, a 22-year-old White student who worked full time, recounted: Work kind of comes first, which is awful because I really would love to be a full-time student and just not have to work at all, because I actually really love school. Melissa is a 29-year-old Latina who dropped out of community college five years ago because she needed to work; she subsequently returned. She disclosed how her financial insecurity shaped her ability to dedicate her time and energy to school:

Im not financially ever secure enough to say no to work either . . . I have to work. Because when youre feeling like you have to survive period and you dont have another option, then I always have to take what comes. And I feel really vulnerable in setting boundaries or setting a schedule for work. You have to take work when it comes. . . . Usually if you have a limited schedule you get the worst shifts. Thats just how it is, and you make less money. . . . If you need the financial stability, you have to be available.

Many students expressed a concern with setting boundaries with employers, and studentsespecially in retail or restaurant workwere typically on call, with work schedules changing every week. As one student explained, employers were interested in scheduling students whenever it benefitted them. These students were unable to benefit from having a consistent work schedule where they could plan time for homework, studying, office hours, or participating on campus. Instead, they had to routinely make choices: if and when to work and go to school. Several students referenced the negative impacts of on call work schedules. William, 20, first-generation, and Asian, mentioned how it was difficult to find time to study with his work schedule constantly in flux:

[The retail store] would send me hours where Id be there after school or right before school. So it was really hard to find time to study. . . . Afternoon shifts, swing shifts, closing shifts right after class. And then Id work every weekend too, so it was really hard to get time to study.

Students relied on several practices to manage their income flow, including finding jobs that could adapt to their school schedules, coping with the challenges of on-call employment, and making constant choices between part-time and full-time work and school attendance.

Educational Subsidies

Students used educational subsidies as an adaptive response to their limited and fluctuating incomes. The California Board of Governors fee waiver provides free tuition for low-income students, but community college is not free for them: Finances were still a detriment to students ability to persist and succeed. Even when combined with federal financial aid, the Pell Grant only awards students a maximum of $5,645 for the academic year, which does not fully cover college costs for any of its recipients. All but nine students in this study received financial aid, but even students who did not qualify for financial aid (because their parents income was too high) did not necessarily receive financial help from their parents. Students who lived at home often had to pay rent, pay for their groceries, pay tuition out of pocket, and use their work money to supplement household income. Whether students had help from their parents, worked, or received financial aid, their income was rarely reliable or secure. Students precarious financial situation required them to juggle many variables, making it nearly impossible to proceed through their college education on a consistent, forward-moving basis.

Receiving financial aid depends on enrolling in a specific number of units. If just one class was cancelled, leaving students short of full-time enrollment, a students financial aid could be jeopardized. This sometimes led students to make the irrational decision to enroll in a class that didnt satisfy their requirements. As discussed earlier, when community colleges dropped courses, it caused considerable stress for students. Elaine, a 23-year-old disabled White student, recounted, I was dropped from it because of low enrollment . . . so I was scrambling trying to get classes for my financial aid. Finding an alternative course was often difficult because classes were impacted and because students had to arrange classes around their outside responsibilities.

Students were unsure about the consequence that failing and withdrawing from courses would have on their financial aid eligibility. Trisha, a 54-year-old first-generation White student, recalled a time when she withdrew from several courses:

When I withdrew from those classes, I didnt know personally that that counts for credits that youve taken, earned. And so that messes up your financial aid. At a junior college, youre only allowed to take 90 units, and because I had the two withdrawals and the incomplete, thats nine units. . . . This last semester I was put on the 90-unit probation, so you dont get your financial aid when everybody else does.

Withdrawing from courses jeopardized Trishas aid eligibility, delaying its disbursement. Students federal financial aid benefits were based on the number of units they attemptednot those successfully completed. Students like Trisha quickly depleted their financial aid by attempting classes but failing and withdrawing from them. Trisha and six other students in the sample had exceeded the maximum time frame of 90 attempted units, and had to complete an appeal to request continuation of financial aid.

Johana, a 46-year-old Latina, reported that she spent most of her Pell Grants while she was taking remedial coursework, so there was no aid remaining when she started taking for-credit classes:

I did two years [of ESL classes], so I spent almost all my financial aid. So right now, Im taking the regular classes. They helped me one year for financial aid, but no more. . . . So three years with financial aid, and one year, no financial aid. They pay [for] my classes, but I need to pay for the rest. Nobody explained to me, If you use the financial aid money right now, you wont have money when you take the regular classes.

Navigating and maintaining control over financial aid and income created an extra unpaid work shift, requiring many hours of planning, negotiating, gathering information, and correcting mistakes. This unpaid shift is ongoing and layered over students school, work, and family demands. Simply piecing together multiple sources of funding to finance their education was a part-time activity for students. Almost all students relied on some combination of the Board of Governors Fee waiver and Pell Grants, but just because students received financial aid did not insulate them from experiencing financial difficulty. Even the maximum level of financial aid that students could receive would never cover all their educational and living costs.

Many, especially older students, used combinations of aid, including disability; GI benefits (their own or their parents); government aid from the Department of Rehabilitation, CalWORKs8; unemployment; or, for one student, her current employer. While these benefits were crucial for helping students afford their education, they also required students to navigate government bureaucracies. As noted earlier, changes in student scheduleswhich were common as courses filled up or were droppedoften placed students aid in jeopardy. Students were required to report to various agencies in order to get their aid, and if their course schedule did not exactly match their student academic plan, students risked delaying their aid. Two examples illustrate this problem.

Rob, a 37-year-old White student with disabilities, discussed the process of interfacing with the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR), who paid for his courses and course materials. This required multiple meetings, not only with his counselor on campus, but also with his counselor at the DOR:

I see [my campus counselor] within the final month [of the semester], just to schedule what my next semester is going to include, so I know what to register for. And then I usually see [my DOR counselor] after I register, and after the books come up, and I can make a list of what Ill need, so that they can give me the check. And then after the semester, Ill give her a copy of my grades once theyre posted.

Audrey, a 46-year-old White single mother, was another student whose continued progress toward her degree required financial support from multiple agencies:

I have CalWORKs and they pay for [my daughters] school and they pay for my books. The BOG waiver, and all that stuff. But my books and all that stuff are paid for by the county, so thats just money for me to live on. . . . Because since Im a single mom I get Need to Families [TANF]. I get five hundred and fifty dollars a month from the county, and I get three hundred dollars a month for food stamps.

Unfortunately, this intricate juggling process didnt always succeed. Nicole, an 18-year-old White student, was unable to take a full-time course load because by the time she finished her VA benefit paperwork, most of the classes were full:

Because when we finally got all the [VA benefits] paperwork and we got situated, it was the Wednesday after the session started. So mostly all the classes were filled, and the main classes I needed were filled. So we got me into sociology. I was supposed to have two classes but when I went back to the office to see what classroom number the other class was [being held] in, they couldnt find it in the system. So I only have one class this semester.

Volatility and instability of students financescreated at the intersection of the financial aid system, bureaucracies that distributed other financial subsidies, and the system of paid employmentrequired them to engage in security work, which underlay their tenuous attachment to their schooling processes.


Students home lives, particularly the care work they had to perform for family members, often impeded their ability to succeed in college, a circumstance compounded by the instability and precariousness of many students families. Students engaged in security work as they managed care of their families and related responsibilities of coordinating housing and transportation.

Taking Care of and Provisioning for Families

Hochschild & Machung (1989) introduced the concept of the second shift to refer to the extra work in the home, including cooking, cleaning, and childcare, that people (mostly women) conduct after their first shift of paid work. My interviewees, women and men alike, engaged heavily in second shifts, having to manage not only the daily demands of their own lives and educational trajectories, but those of their children, spouses, and members of their extended families.

Eleven of the students I interviewed had families of their own, and those that did not often had additional care-taking responsibilities, such as caring for a parent or siblings. Jessica, a 25-year-old student who worked full-time while attending college, talked about how caring for her elderly grandmother took more time than school:

My grandma got really sick, and I spent more time taking care of her than I did going to school. . . . She cant drive, so in the afternoons when Im out of work, I would have to go over there and make sure she eats dinner, drive her to the store if she needs to go to the store, if she needs a haircut, Id be the one to do it.

Jasmine, 19 and first-generation Latina, had a mother who was out of the country. She cooked, cleaned, and cared for her two younger brothers, taking them to school every morning. She recounted how, Yesterday my 9-year-old brother was sick, so I had to stay home with him, because my dad had to go to work. So I missed school, and I missed work.

All of the students who were parents discussed the challenges of balancing their work, school, and family schedules. Having children limited when students could study and take classes, the number of classes they were able to take, and whether they could participate in on-campus activities. Larry, a 36-year-old White student, lamented, I couldnt do the night courses that I need to do. The schedule just didnt work out to do it that way. I think one of the classes would have been too difficult to get my kids back and forth to the school. Many students prioritized their parenting responsibilities over their school responsibilities. Dolly, 39 and Latina, said:

I do put my family ahead of [school] because its not their choice that I go to school. Its my choice. So I dont interfere. I dont tell the kids, Oh, be quiet. Im studying. Its not their problem that I do that. So I schedule around. So thats been hard, financially. It really has been. And so with three kids, I work for the food budget.

Dolly put her family and work schedule ahead of her school schedule: School was optional, while caring for her family was not. Unreliable childcare arrangements made it difficult for student parents to predict if they could attend class or take a full-time course load. Christa, a single mother, recounted how childcare led her to withdraw from a class:

I was struggling. First class meeting I get a phone call from the school saying my daughter just threw up. . . . Second class meeting, there was something wrong with me . . . I just did not feel good. I left class again. Third class meeting I missed because my son was sick. So you can see, this is an issue when you dont have sick care for your kids. Its not just yourself, your own health, that you have to be concerned over, its also your kids health.

Having to handle the unanticipated crisis when taking care of and provisioning for families, including children, partners, and elders, could undermine students best efforts to succeed.

Managing Housing and Transportation

Many students were held back in their academic progress by unstable home situations, such as divorce or addiction, and many experienced housing insecurity, particularly frequent moves and housing loss, as a result. Audrey, a 46-year-old White student and single mother, disclosed that she was homeless when she enrolled in community college: For the first three semesters of my college life I was a homeless student. And my daughter Kelly and I showered in the [school] gym at five oclock every morning, on campus. Many students reported how unstable housing made it difficult to focus on school. For William, a 20-year-old first-generation Asian student, it led to his withdrawal: When I left the first time around its because I was working and I was going to school and I wasnt able to pay my bills and we went through a lot with my family, we were moving a lot. Elaine, whose father was laid off from his construction job during the recession, said, When my mom bought her house, everything was great. She was making $40,000 a year. And then she lost her job, and that was when the recession hit. We were almost homeless. Most students academic timelines were punctuated with frequent moves between the households of family members, romantic partners, roommates, or living on their own.

 Financial insecurity affected students ability to access reliable transportation to and from classes, thus constricting their ability to participate more in campus activities. Many took public transportation or relied on friends or family for rides. Students had little money to spare; several mentioned how the cost of transportation to and from campus hampered their ability to engage there. Transportation impacted the way that Nicole, an 18-year-old White student, chose her class schedule because she had to coordinate her commute with her father, a veteran who had returned to community college. These constraints severely limited her class schedule:

I try to make it the same day that my Dad has class, so its easier for him and less gas for us. So I looked for the Monday and Wednesday [classes] that were free. And then I looked for something near the department that I want to specialize in, and sociology started the same time as my Dads first class does. So that helped a lot.

Rob, a 37-year-old White student with disabilities, described how relying on his friends for transportation led him to drop out of classes:

Well, I actually graduated in [19]95 and started to come to Foothills then. [I had] no planned major, didnt really take it too seriously. . . . I had to rely on my friends for transportation. They werent taking it too seriously either. And when they dropped, I lost my ride. And so I dropped. So I got a, I basically had, if I could have a GPA of a W (withdrawal) I would have.

In multiple ways, then, students unreliable income sources intersected with family, home, and transportation issues, impacting their ability to engage on campus, choose classes, succeed in, drop, and schedule them, and attain their degrees.


Students I interviewed for this project faced a range of setbacks and barriers to successfully engaging with their coursework and completing community college degrees. Students engage in two forms of security work to adjust their lives around their educations. Limited financial aid meant that many students worked significant hours, almost always in jobs that were low-wage, on-call, and without benefits. The complexities of the financial aid system created a new level of work for students negotiating between different programs and acquiring information. This occasionally interfered with students enrollment, sometimes leading them to select courses not required for their program or forcing them to drop out. Students added family and childcare responsibilitiescombined with other destabilizing factors, like housing insecurity or unreliable transportationfurther hindered their ability to devote enough time and mental energy to their studies. These two forms of security work often operated together in ways that kept students on the margins of the community college: one event away from failing, stopping out, or permanently dropping out of college.

Emily, a 22-year-old White student, provided a compelling and poignant summary of how the interplay of precarity in the community college system and turbulence in her own life led her to enroll at three different community colleges in the Central Valley, leaving her in considerable debt:

I started at [one] community college and I hated it there. . . . I had a lot of friends and so I wasnt as focused on schoolwork as I should have been. . . . They also dont offer a lot of college classes. . . . Theyre pretty limited on what they can offer cause the town is so tiny. . . . And I only was in that school for two months before I decided to move to [a second] community college. I was living there with my aunt. And so my family drama happened, I ended up getting kicked out of her house. I was only at [that] college for a couple of months; I never finished a semester there either. . . . So then I went back to [the first] community college, and I almost got to finish a semester except for the job I was working at that time had this really awful boss . . . he wouldnt work around my school schedule, so I ended up having to drop school again, which put me in a hole with financial aid, like a huge hole.

Emily was so vulnerable to being derailed from her goal of completing a college degree that one eventcancellation of a course, housing insecurity, or an inflexible bosscould come up at any time and knock her off track. Christa, a 31-year-old White student and single mother, similarly identified the fragility of students schedules, and how unforeseen forcesan increase in work hours, a dropped class, unreliable childcareworked in concert, curtailing student progress:

I was supposed to be ending my work experience on January 22nd, so I enrolled in the day class as well as a night class. So I told my friend, Ill pay you $10 a day if you watch my kids at night. So she agreed to that. And then I found out that I was gonna get an extension for the work experience. And now, I need to take this day class, throw it into nights. So I had two night classes. So I talked to my friend, she agreed [to watch her friends children for an additional night once her schedule changed]. So its a matter of coordinating with everybody. Because I had to coordinate with [my job], I had to coordinate with my friend, and fit in school into my schedule and work around the school schedule. . . . Then my friend had the shit hit the fan with her. My classes got thrown out the door because I no longer have childcare. So I had to rearrange. This is the first week of school, its Tuesday . . . so Im going what am I going to do?

Emily and Christas recollections illustrate how students lives routinely were in flux. Precarity within the community college itself and precarity in students lives has serious consequences for students ability to persist and succeed. Students in this study, who came from diverse backgrounds and often lived on the edge financially, had a thin margin of error between being enrolled in college, withdrawing from a class, or dropping out of school completely. Students engaged in a delicate balancing act, juggling work schedules, family obligations, the logistical challenges of living in poverty, and their school work. While varying from student to student, virtually all students had to engage in security work, negatively impacting their academic progress.


Community colleges ideally provide a pathway for upward mobility to students who might normally be excluded from attaining a college degree. However, if they are unable to persist and realize their degree goals, students miss out on the economic benefit of a community college credential and later, a four-year degree. Students enroll in community college programs with dreams of upward mobility: to escape low-wage jobs, improve their standard of living, and gain financial and job security (Iloh & Tierney, 2014). Where and how are they getting off track?   

In this paper, I presented empirical evidence of circumstances that derailed students from the academic track, keeping them from earning degrees in smooth, uninterrupted ways. Multiple individual- and institutional-level factors could occur at any time and keep students from fully engaging at the community college. Structural problems within the community college itself, such as cancelled classes, inadequate advising resources, and students limited cultural capital were compounded by instability in students lives. Students developed rational ways of coping with these insecurities, which I identify as security work. First, students worked to manage income flow by patching together multiple forms of financial support and working in low-wage jobs. Second, students work second shifts of managing households, children, and other family members, which was compounded by insecure housing and unreliable transportation. I found that students engaged in these forms of work with great frequency, and that they routinely were at risk of derailment by a single unexpected event. Students failure to succeed was often the result of a series of interactions between institutional deficiencies and students turbulent and unpredictable lives. Living in a precarious society has created an urgent sense of risk and insecurity, not just in peoples work and educational lives, but also in their home, personal lives, and relationships, and in the ways they think about the future (Wallulis, 1998). Many people engage in security work to both survive and manage the emotional burden of uncertainty (Cooper, 2014). My findings show a considerable amount of security work on the part of California community college students.

My research supports the perspective that the structure of the community college, for example, the cancellation of classes and lack of clear information, do thwart students best intentions. The emphasis on structural remedies, however, minimizes and even overlooks the precariousness of the lives of community college students. My findings advance predominantly structural approaches by identifying an interaction effect between the precariousness of the institution and the fragility of community college students lives. In particular, I show how the structure of the community college shapes the way students organize their academic and employment schedules, their ability to meet the demands of their courses, and their overall ability to succeed in college. I also show how the fragile lives of many community college students exacerbate institutional precarity.

Limited Application of the Traditional/Nontraditional Dichotomy

I did not recruit disadvantaged interviewees in an attempt to prove that students were struggling. The finding that most students, even those with relative privilege, engaged in security work to reconcile their personal and academic lives was unexpected. Whereas I initially predicted that sporadic attendance in the community college might be more typical for nontraditional students (defined by enrollment patterns, financial and family status, age, and high school graduation status), I found that students who, in the research literature, would be defined as traditional and nontraditional experienced these institutional and individual barriers and that both groups were likely to be stalled in their pathways in the community college. My interviews revealed that students lives across the board were much more complex than the traditional/nontraditional dichotomy suggests: All students confronted barriers that kept them from completing their degrees. Precariousness and the resulting security work were not limited to one age, race, or gender group.

Over recent decades, the majority of community college students have been nontraditional, using the broad set of criteria outlined earlier in this paper. Further, the number of students in community colleges considered nontraditional by some definitions, such as racial minorities, older students, and low-income students, is increasing.9 Today, the traditional community college student is one pursuing an education along interrupted, nonlinear paths: They are the tradition in the community college setting. The traditional/nontraditional binary has become less and less relevant for understanding students experiences. While one might find traditional students in the most elite private universities, they are rare in the community college system. Current research shows that fewer exist in state college and state university systems as well. We are likely to see a notable convergence between the experiences of community college students and students in other institutions of public higher education, especially because more first-generation students and students from low-income families are enrolling in four-year colleges.10

Arguably, it makes more sense to think of many, perhaps the majority of community college students, as positioned between the institutional deficiencies described in this paper and the challenges facing disadvantaged groups in the economy. Most students struggle to acquire a college degree and simultaneously deal with paid jobs, finesse financial aid, raise children, cope with housing, and navigate other circumstances of daily life. Students who are tenuously attached to the community collegesuch that a single event or deviation from the plan can decisively derail their progressare the new normal. These findings are particularly important in the current historical moment when politicians, policymakers, and society look to the community college system to alleviate mobility problems and to correct economic inequality.

Feedback Loop Between Institutional and Individual Precarity

I argue that we should consider institutional and individual precarity as intersecting and mutually conditioning processes. The two types of precarity outlined in this paperin students lives and at the collegeplay on, reinforce, and simultaneously condition each other.

Conditions analyzed in the previous section, in a feedback loop, reinforce irregularity and instability in the community college itself. Students patterns of engagement (shaped by many factors) undermine the institutions efforts to stabilize their curriculum or improve graduation rates. For instance, when students must take time off or quit because they cannot obtain the requisite flexibility in their paid jobs, because their financial aid has been blocked, or because they have to deal with a crisis in their family, class enrollments shrink. This may lead the community college to cancel classes, leaving other students unable to enroll in the classes they need and reflecting poorly on colleges overall time-to-completion rates. When counselors advise students in a context of understaffing and are held responsible for students living in disadvantage and their lack of cultural capital and college knowledge, the counselors will be unable to provide sufficient guidance. In other words, if community colleges are persistently asked to help students succeed under these circumstances, then they will continue to fail to live up to the societal expectation that, institutionally, they can solve the problems for which they are increasingly held accountable for in the era of college for all.

Conversely, problems in the institution create more problems for students whose lives are already one event from being derailed. Unpredictability of classes and a lack of clear information hampers students ability to perform care work, hold down paid jobs, and secure adequate housing and transportation. The financial aid system, especially confusing requirements and limits on aid, also constrains students ability to plan for the nonacademic aspects of their lives and leads them to make decisions that impede sustained progress through to an AA degree. Aspects of students lives that are tentative for them to begin withfinances, childcare, housing, and transportationare exacerbated by the flakiness of the institution itself.

It is important to note that by placing the spotlight on students personal and family lives, I do not intend to blame them as individuals. The personal experiences community college students revealed to me are, for many, the experiences of being poor and struggling, the experiences we find in studies of women on welfare or other people who live in poverty. Sociologists have documented disadvantaged groups precarity, such that any crisis can catapult them into poverty. Edin and Lein (1997), for example, show how poor single mothers work to keep their households afloat using a wide variety of survival strategies, including obtaining welfare and work-based income, support from family and friend networks, and cash and in-kind assistance from agencies. Still, these survival strategies are dynamic and unreliable, resembling a continuously unraveling patchwork quilt (Edin & Lein, 1997, p. 224). Womens desperate economic and personal situations mean that they are one sick child away from destitution (Edin & Lein, 1997, p. 2). Desmond (2016) shows how people are often one event away from falling behind on rent and into the never-ending cycle of eviction (Desmond, 2016). My study shows how one eventhaving your work shifts rescheduled, having an inflexible boss, having your babysitter back out on you, neglecting to drop a class, or losing your financial aidcan imperil and disrupt the life of the community college student.


To improve student success, institutional- and individual-level barriers must be considered simultaneously. One cannot solve the problem of the institution (like encouraging students to become socially integrated by joining clubs, or academically integrated by attending their instructors office hours) without addressing multiple issues that shape peoples ability to attend college, such as the lack of childcare, the instability caused when students hold jobs in a just-in-time economy, and housing, food, and transportation insecurity. Redesigning the community college is importantbut findings about students precarious lives suggest that this will not be enough. Students are not just confused and distracted as they face obscure pathways to their goals: They are focused on financial, employment, and family, housing, and food security. Regardless of their goals and academic preparation, students will not persist if they cannot make adequate childcare arrangements, adjust their school schedules, or pay for college.

Societal-level interventions are needed to disrupt the feedback loop between institutional and individual precarity. Providing quality, affordable childcare for students would alleviate some of their care work responsibilities. Better state funding would allow colleges to expand and improve advising infrastructures and hire more counselors, providing students with more high-quality information. If the system were funded more adequately, course offerings would be more abundant and less erratic, allowing students more predictability in the scheduling of courses. Goldrick-Rab (2016) recommends providing free college for all, beginning with making associates degrees free to all students who pursue them, which would alleviate some of students financial stress. Finally, starting before students walk onto community college campuses, organizations can work with youth to impart the kinds of cultural capital students need to better interpret higher education.


1. These completion rates are lower than those at open-access four-year institutions where 59% graduate within six years (Snyder & Dillow, 2015).

2. This is a study of California community college students; research on community college students in other states might reveal different problems and issues.

3. All students and the institutions where this research was conducted were assigned pseudonyms.

4. Following the NCES definition, students are considered nontraditional if they identify with one or more of the following risk factors: they delay postsecondary enrollment by a year or more, attend part time, have dependents other than a spouse, are a single parent, work full time while enrolled, are financially independent (older than 24, a graduate student, or younger than 24 but are married, have dependents, are military veterans, or are wards of the court) (The College Board, 2008), or did not receive a standard high school diploma (received a GED or high school certificate).

5. Minimally nontraditional students have only one of the seven characteristics listed above, moderately nontraditional students have two or three, and highly nontraditional students have four or more.

6. It is not possible to discuss this issue in depth, but in California, as in other states, the state has dramatically decreased funding to higher education over the last several decades, creating the conditions described by students.

7. These are students perspectives on counselors supportwe cannot verify that these interactions happened as reportedbut they nevertheless help explain students perceptions of the institutional support available to them. Their reports suggest that college practices were partially responsible for impeding students ability to obtain suitable information to guide their way toward finishing their degree.

8. CalWORKs is a program to support welfare recipients attending school.

9. The most recent NCES data show that, between 1976 and 2013, the total percentage of fall enrollments who were racial minorities increased from 13% to 36% in public four-year colleges, and 20% to 47% at public two-year colleges. From 2012 to 2023, NCES projects the rate of increase for students under age 25 to be 12%, compared with 20% for students age 25 and over. The number of low-income high school seniors who enroll in a postsecondary institution following graduation has increased from 35% in 1975 to 49% in 2013 (Snyder & Dillow, 2015).

10. This is corroborated in new research that finds that one in 10 California State Universities students is homeless and that one in five lacks steady access to food (Xia, 2016).


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Interview Questions


Can you tell me about your experiences with the different administrative offices on campus, like the registrar, student business services, counseling, diversity center, and disabled student programs and services (DSPS) office?


Do you use the services of the financial aid office, EOPS, or the Board of Governors (BOG) waiver?


Where do you find the support you need?


Have you developed any mentor relationships with people on campus?


Does anyone give you advice about what classes to take?


Do you talk with anyone, either inside the college or outside, about future career opportunities?


Are you involved in any clubs or student groups? If so, what drew you to that club and what do you get out of being in that club? If not, what has kept you from joining a club here?


Did you feel prepared to take classes here? What skills made you prepared? What do you feel like you were unprepared for?


Tell me about a time when you struggled in one of your courses. How did you deal with it?


How did you choose your major? Have you considered studying something else?


Are you doing as well in your classes as youd like?


Do you feel like your confidence level has changed since you started here?


Can you tell me about your academic timeline after high school? Did you consider other paths besides community college?


Have you consistently taken classes here, or did you start and stop?


How did you choose to attend this community college specifically?


Do you have children? If so, does being a parent and a student impact the classes you take here?


Do you work? If so, tell me about how you figure out your work and class schedule.


What is your educational goal?


Where do you see yourself in 10 years?


Example of Coding Raw Data

Codes are as follows: Familiarity with school system = FSS; Mentorship = M (Instructor Mentorship = MI; Counselor Mentorship = MC); Courses (Schedule = CS; Difficulty = CD; Failure and Withdrawal = CFW); Balancing work = BW; School Funding = SF.

Interviewer: So tell me about a time when you struggled in one of your classes.

35-year-old male Latino student: I would have to say recently with accounting. Its probably the most struggle Ive had. I thought it was rather easy. Its basic math. But the lingo of the class is a lot different, and I had never experienced anything like that (CD). The professors were very knowledgeable but they were rather quick, not as approachable as other professors (MI). . . . Ive tried Accounting 1 and [Accounting] A. . . . Accounting A is the pre-req[uisite] to [Accounting] 1, and I didnt know it went in that order (CS, FSS). Somehow I didnt go over it with [the counselor] Ms. Morris (CM). I tried taking [Accounting] 1, and I was like No, that aint gonna work. (CD) So then I enrolled in [Accounting] A. I went for a while and then something came up and I had to withdraw (CFW). Something changed. You know what, I think my work schedule changed is what it was (BW). I was like, [Accounting ] A, I can handle. . . . But both the professors were not as approachable . . . I wasnt gonna drop the course right away. What I wanted to do was stick around and get as much notes as I could even though I was gonna potentially get an F (CFW). Like I said, the VA will pay for the course to retake it (SF). So I knew I was struggling already (CD). I went to the professor and I said, Look, Im struggling. Im not gonna pass this class. (MI) . . . She was okay with it for a few weeks, but after a few weeks, I wasnt engaging. She didnt like that anymore . . . thats where things started going south . . . and then I withdrew.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 1, 2019, p. 1-30
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22462, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 6:35:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Beth Ann Hart
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    BETH ANN HART is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. Her research and writing focus on higher education, inequality, poverty, and precariousness. Her current research examines the mechanisms that explain community college students’ low completion rates and non-linear enrollment patterns.
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