Managing the unmanageable: perceptions of structural barriers and external influences on the educational attainment of Pell Grant eligible community college students
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Community college students often have more complex needs and access to fewer resources than their four-year university counterparts. While there is some research on community colleges, it tends to be narrowly focused on students' initial degree aspirations, previous academic record, and demographic characteristics and less on the students’ experiences and perceptions. This dissertation identifies and illuminates the gaps between the existing research and the perceptions of community college students. This research draws on empowerment theory and the theory of democratization and diversion to comprehensively explore the complexities of community college students' lives. In-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with two groups of current Pell Grant eligible community college students: 1) those who meet their institution's criteria for satisfactory academic progress towards an Associates in Arts degree (n=31); and 2) those who do not meet the criteria (n=31). The purpose of these interviews was to uncover barriers and enablers contributing to students' abilities to meet their educational goals. Braun & Clarke's (2006) six phases of iterative thematic analysis were followed to analyze the data and ATLAS.ti software was used to assist in the coding. The data were grouped so that the overlapping experiences of participants could be clearly noted without losing the unique perceptions and words of the participants. Four major themes were identified: sources of motivation; responsibilities to resources ratio and external barriers; informational capital and knowledge; and powerlessness. Motivation and access to sufficient resources in order to meet a student's responsibilities were noted by participants as requirements to enable educational attainment. Additionally, the need for students to decode the rules of higher education in the institution and classroom were identified, and different levels of powerlessness were noted between groups. These findings have implications for theory including updating Brint & Karabel's democratization and diversion theory and presenting an emerging theoretical construct. Recommendations for policy and practice are made. Further, areas of further exploration for community college students and employees are presented in order to continue to add these expert voices in to the larger community college conversation.