Policy Matters is a quarterly series of reports that provide timely research and guidance on issues that are of concern to policymakers at the local, state, and national levels.

Volume 4, Issue 2 by John S. Levin, Virginia Montero Hernandez, and Christine Cerven, Succeeding in Community College: Advancing the Educational Progress of Working Students.


Executive Summary

Community colleges in the United States have been an important component of higher educa- tion since the early 20th century. They tend to serve the most disadvantaged and academically-unpre- pared student population of postsecondary education. Although community colleges are among the most affordable options, most students still have to work in order to make ends meet.

This study analyzes the institutional and personal factors that help nontraditional students to succeed academically in community college while fulfilling their obligations to full-time or part-time work. First, we present national statistical data to provide the general landscape of community college students and demonstrate that working full-time is detrimental to educational progress. Next, in order to understand the circumstances that help working students to successfully complete their studies, we draw upon qualitative data from 35 interview transcripts from students, faculty, and administrators in two community colleges, one in New York and one in California.

We find that nontraditional students persist in community colleges for two reasons. First, com- munity colleges created support structures (i.e., counseling, peer mentoring, flexible scheduling, and tutoring programs) that encourage interaction and dialogue between students and college personnel. Second, students persist in college because they develop self-confidence and self-authorship, factors that allow students to commit to college requirements and formulate future educational plans.

Our study, as well as others, indicate that solutions to improve the educational progress of work- ing students have to take into account changes both within academic institutions as well as to social policy and legislation. Institutional changes include redesigning support services in ways that meet the needs of students who work during the day, and building networks across community colleges and between academic institutions, governments, and businesses. These changes, however, also need to
be met with changes in social policy such as increased funding for community colleges, especially for support programs that are crucial to ensuring student success. Thus, conversations about improving student outcomes need to extend well beyond community colleges, to state and federal policymakers.

John S. Levin is professor of Higher Education and Dean in the Graduate School of Education at University of California, Riverside. His current research addresses community colleges, graduate students’ career choices, and university and college faculty work. Professor Levin can be reached by email: johnlev@ucr.edu or by phone: (951)827-5802.

Virginia Montero Hernandez (Ph.D. in Education, UCR) is a postdoctoral fellow at UC Riverside, and her areas of specialization include curriculum and instruction, socio-cultural theory, and higher education. Christine Cerven (Ph.D. in Sociology, UCR) is a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego, and her research interests focus on identity processes as they relate to psychological well-being and identity development among women.

This article is a modification of a book chapter: Levin, J. S., Montero-Hernandez, V., & Cerven, C. (2010). “Overcoming Adversity: Community College Students and Work,” in L. Perna, (ed.), Toward a More Complete Understanding of Work

for Today’s Undergraduates, pp. 43-66. Sterling, VA: Stylus Books. Copyright © 2011 by Stylus Publishing, LLC.