Start, Start Again: The College Pathways of Economically-Vulnerable Mothers

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Start, Start Again: The College Pathways of Economically-Vulnerable Mothers

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Title: Start, Start Again: The College Pathways of Economically-Vulnerable Mothers
Author: Deterding, Nicole Marie ORCID  0000-0001-5819-8935
Citation: Deterding, Nicole Marie. 2015. Start, Start Again: The College Pathways of Economically-Vulnerable Mothers. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: How do returning college students navigate the rapidly diversifying landscape of higher education options available to them today? Adopting a life course perspective, I argue that the college persistence of non-traditional students must be understood within historical, institutional, and personal context. I use longitudinal survey data from approximately 750 respondents and 130 in-depth life history interviews from over 100 participants in the Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project to document college decision-making leading up to and following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Using mixed methods, I outline the limitations of traditional measures for capturing the winding college pathways and future college plans of America’s most disadvantaged college students. I also contribute to an emerging literature on mixed-methods data analysis in social science research.
I find remarkable levels of persistent college aspiration and enrollment, long past normative time to degree and far into young adulthood. The diverse institutional landscape of non-selective postsecondary education offers many opportunities for a return to college, but also complicates the pathway to earning a credential. I describe how these economically-vulnerable students understand the meaning and value of a college degree, finding that economic necessity and the positive moral valence of college-going combine to support continued aspiration. While the logic of human capital investment dominates policy and academic discussions of college’s value, I find the symbolic meaning of a college degree also shapes aspirations and decision-making into adulthood, particularly for the students who struggle the most. For these students, “valuing” a college degree involves both economic and moral calculations.
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