Graduating Class: Disadvantaged Students Crossing the Bridge of Higher Education
reviewed by Leonard L. Baird - October 11, 2007
Title: Graduating Class: Disadvantaged Students Crossing the Bridge of Higher Education
Author(s): Latty L. Goodwin
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791467414 , Pages: 226, Year: 2006
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How do disadvantaged students negotiate the complex demands of an elite university? In addition to the academic demands that face all students at such institutions, they must compete and interact with other students who are usually from affluent homes, and who are usually groomed from early childhood for their admission and success in college. The level of cultural capital among students and faculty at elite institutions goes beyond academic knowledge to include many details of sophisticated behavior. Latty Goodwin follows the lives of three groups of students as they work their way through four years at an elite institution: The Pleasers, who are first generation immigrant students; the Searchers, who are second generation immigrants; and the Skeptics, who were brought to this country involuntarily, essentially African American students. (This book is a follow up to an earlier book, Goodwin, 2002). The students were enabled to pay for their educations through the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), sponsored by the State of New York and private universities. To illustrate the experiences of each of the groups, Goodwin focuses on particular participants whose stories are followed through the themes that are the focus of each chapter. For the Pleasers the most common areas in which they expressed concern were language issues and dealing with their need for family emotional support and, in some cases, financial support, which were intertwined with issues of family control over their lives. The Searchers were concerned with their identities while negotiating the dual cultures of their community and the university. The Skeptics had persistent financial difficulties, some due to racism. In general for these students, the more familiar they became with elite American culture, the more stress and alienation they felt.
Despite the financial assistance from HEOP, the students had to plan very carefully and schedule work to make ends meet. The combination of academic demands and work demands meant that the students had little time for anything other than study and jobs. This includes informal socializing, extracurricular activities, dating and romance. Thus, the price of an elite education goes far beyond the monetary. The students main social connections were with other HEOP students they met in orientation activities. Indeed, their strongest friendships came from those early connections, as the students helped each other cope with the demands of university life. One stressor that some might not expect at an academically elite university was stereotyping and bias. The students felt they received little help from the university in coping with this stress, and credit their own specific academic strategies and techniques with managing it. However, all these ups and downs led to personal and academic growth, according to the students. One coping pattern was to find a literal space of their own that they felt was theirs and allowed them to be themselves. Another factor that Goodwin discusses at some length is academic resiliency. Indeed, it seemed to this reader that the success of this group (all graduated, save one) was due in large part to their determination to succeed, to endure, to overcome obstacles, and to learn from mistakes rather than bewail them. The origins of this resiliency are unclear, but Goodwin believes it can be developed among other students.
The students, when asked, provided a long list of recommendations to make the university a more welcoming and supportive place. Goodwin emphasizes that the recommendations do not include diluting standards or providing special treatment (the students wanted real degrees based on rigorous demands). Rather, the recommendations concerned the fostering of diversity, and the university taking students seriously. But she also expresses doubts that any of the recommendations will be implemented, since there is no prestige, money, or positive publicity connected with them.
When asked to reflect on what they had accomplished, the students were most proud to have graduated, even when some of their families did not understand the significance of what they had done. Interestingly, they tended to feel that their greatest growth was not in their mastery of their subjects, but in communication skills. They felt that they had changed and would probably change more, but that the university had not and would not. Perhaps the most interesting outcome was the lack of any expressed desire to give back to their communities or society. Most thought in purely personal terms, focusing on themselves and their families.
So, this intriguing book leaves the reader with many questions to ponder. What is the price of elite education for those who go through it? Does anyone have fun at elite institutions? Is mobility to be thought of in strictly personal terms? Does attendance at an elite institution give one cultural capital or merely the opportunity for financial capital? What can be learned from this study that applies to non elite institutions? The last question is important theoretically as well as pragmatically. More generally, a number of theorists and researchers have attempted to use the ideas of culture and Bourdieus cultural capital to understand student retention and success (Kuh and Love, 2000; Berger, 2000). The main contention of this approach is that the greater the distance of the students culture of origin from the typical cultural background of students at their college, the more likely they are to drop out and be academically unsuccessful. Likewise, researchers point to the importance of involvement in campus life for student retention and success (e.g., Astin, 1999; Kuh, 2003). Predictions based on all these approaches would be that the students studied in this book would be academically unsuccessful and drop out. However, virtually all were successful and graduated. So, perhaps the most interesting idea in the book is that of academic resilience. Although it does not yet seem to be completely developed as a theoretical construct in this reviewers eyes, it is important to understand. Is it a generalized personality trait of determination and grit that applies in other areas of life? Where does it come from? Can it be encouraged or developed in other students?
Finally, there is, as always, a need to compare the results of a qualitative study of a small number of particular participants in a particular setting to other people in other settings. Although generalization is unwarranted, the ideas in this book are worth further investigation, particularly because the changing demographics of higher education suggest that the number of students similar to those studied will steadily increase. The ideas may help us all in the years ahead.
Astin, A. W. (1999). Involvement in Learning revisited: Lessons we have learned. Journal of College Student Development, 40, 587-598.
Berger, J. B. (2000). Optimizing capital, social reproduction, and undergraduate persistence. In J.M. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the student departure puzzle (pp. 95-124). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Goodwin, L. L. (2002). Resilient spirits: Disadvantaged students making it at an elite university. New York: Routledge Falmer.
Kuh, G. R. (2003). What were learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change, 35(2), 24-32
Kuh, G. R. and Love, P. G. (2000). A cultural perspective on student departure. In J. B. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the departure puzzle (pp. 196-212). Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.