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Open Access Thesis

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Master of Arts (M.A.)

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Statistical data on community colleges confirms how vast the community college institution is: Serving 46% of all undergraduates in the country, or 12.4 million students. A large body of literature exists on the specifics of social reproduction in four-year universities; as well as the specifics of social reproduction in racially and economically segregated high schools. However, there exists a blind spot in this literature when it comes to social reproduction at the community college.

Through conducting interviews with students, faculty and staff at three local community colleges, this ethnographic study explores this theoretical and empirical blind spot by using a critical cultural studies perspective on social reproduction, asking questions around community college students’ experiences on three levels: students themselves, the institutional level through administration and governance; and, lastly, the communication strategy of the community college.

Community colleges largely serve working class students, immigrants and older learners. They are the embodiment of the classic American dream that social mobility is possible through a democratic and public education system that allows anyone to ‘work their way up.’ On the other hand, they can work to funnel students too quickly into vocational tracks that foreclose the possibility of a higher-prestige, and higher-earning, bachelor’s degree. Community colleges straddle this tension between upward social mobility and class reproduction, as well as institutional tensions produced by needing to adapt to pervasive neoliberal logic. Student interviews highlight the ways their educational experiences are shaped by these tensions, given the community college’s unique structural education within higher education, and how these tensions can work to foreclose or open their future education possibilities.

This thesis also explores the following themes: the community college’s positioning relative to public state schools and elite private schools; community college governance; workforce changes among faculty and staff and it’s effect on students; political implications of the community college education model; and, more broadly, understanding the place of public education in a wider neoliberal sociopolitical context.


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