Social capital and learning assistance

Certain groups of students bring less social capital with them to college— students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, first-generation college stu­dents, and historically underrepresented students of color. Learning assistance services, especially developmental courses, are essential for overcoming disad­vantaged backgrounds. Learning assistance is essential for providing access to a broad range of institutions. This was certainly the case for me. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college (eventually my oldest brother would also graduate from college after a long and distinguished career in the military). My parents twere supportive of my decision to attend college, but had no prior experiences to share with me and provide guidance. On the other hand, there were many other supports they provided for me that helped me in college and life, but that is for another blog posting in the future.

The student groups that had not traditionally attended college before have a variety of overlapping identities, some of which pose barriers that impede success in college. Walpole (2007) analyzed this population and names one group “economically and educationally challenged.” “All [economically and educationally challenged] students, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity, face challenges in accessing, persisting, and graduating from college. The intersec­tions of these identity statuses and educational processes and outcomes are non-linear and deserve additional attention” (p. x). Walpole states that chal­lenges for these students are not the result of a failure to try or that they are somehow inferior to the students from dominate cultures. “Rather these stu­dents must cope with a structure and a system that defines merit in ways that do not privilege them” (p. 15).

Learning assistance can help these new students overcome the barriers that might limit their chances for succeeding in postsecondary education. Deciding whether to curtail or eliminate credit-based learning assistance such as developmental courses does not just affect campus economics or perceptions of institutional prestige. It is not a race- and class-neutral deci­sion. My report illustrates how a wide range of students at most institu­tions, regardless of their classification, use noncredit learning assistance activities such as tutoring, study groups, learning assistance centers, and the like. Lack of access to credit-based learning assistance, however, raises issues of class, race, and culture.

It is a serious decision to tell essentially an entire group of students who share common demographic identities such as first-generation college students, students of color, and low socioeco­nomic students to begin their college career at a two-year college, while privileged students can begin wherever they want. No one quite says it that way. The impact is the same, however, if the needed resources are not avail­able and the campus culture is not welcoming to the new students. The risk is de facto resegregation of postsecondary education in the United States and all the disastrous results for individuals and society that would occur (Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, 2009). A later blog posting will investigate this issue more indepth and raise the issue of civil rights violation for providing services to previous genrations but denying them to the new students attending college. Social and culture capital must be available for all students, not just those from the privledged classes.

  • Bowen, W. G., Chingos, M. M., and McPherson, M. S. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Walpole, M. (2007). Economically and educationally challenged students in higher education: Access to outcomes. ASHE Higher Education Report, volume 33, number 3. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This posting was excerpted and expanded from my recent book, Access at the crossroads: Learning assistance in higher educationpublished by Jossey-Bass/Willey. For more inforamtion about the book, click this link.