Community Colleges in the Lives of Contemporary Youth: Educational Expansion, Steady Expectations, and Inter-institutional Attendance

Open Access
Fleishman, Shannon Smythe
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 10, 2013
Committee Members:
  • David P Baker, Dissertation Advisor
  • David P Baker, Committee Chair
  • Jeremy Staff, Committee Member
  • John Jesse Cheslock, Committee Member
  • Leticia Oseguera, Committee Member
  • community colleges
  • higher education
  • college students
  • youth
  • educational expectations
  • inter-institutional
Community colleges have changed notably over the past quarter century, as have the demographics and educational trajectories of the growing proportion of traditional-age college students who attend them at some point along their transition to adulthood. This dissertation extends the literature on how institutional attendance intersects with change and persistence in postsecondary educational expectations after high school in four key ways. First, I identify the key institutional trends at the heart of the current condition of the two-year sector. Understanding the changing macro-structural environment is a necessary first step in revisiting seminal works within the sociology of education, including Burton Clark’s “cooling out” thesis (1960), Brint and Karabel’s Diverted Dreams (1989), and Rosenbaum’s critique of the “college-for-all” ethos (2001), all of which predict a downward leveling of ambition vis-à-vis the community college experience, though with varying levels of attention paid to the intersecting roles of institutions, families, and academic backgrounds. Next, I employ graphic, descriptive, and inferential logistic analysis to examine competing explanations about the mechanisms involved in the predicted downward leveling of ambition. How, if at all, do expectations change and what are the mechanisms at play for contemporary youth? Finally, special methodological attention is given to the implications of expanding our longitudinal frame, as well as to accounting for the growing complexity of institutional attendance patterns both within and between the two- and four-year sectors when answering this question. The term “inter-institutional attendance” is introduced to highlight this point. Results provide little support for Clark’s cooling out thesis, some support for Brint and Karabel’s diversion hypothesis in early adulthood although this disappears depending on how educational expectations are captured in late adulthood and on the comparisons made, and moderate support for Rosenbaum’s “college-for-all” thesis, at least for those at the margins of changing expectations. Instead, I find that the modal experience among contemporary youth is one of holding on to their bachelor’s degree expectations, even beyond the normative college-going years. The implications of these findings for existing theory and research, as well as for the national College Completions Agenda are discussed, with special attention given to the development of a new theoretical framework for understanding the role of community colleges in the lives of contemporary youth.