What college means: Perceptions expressed by a small group of urban high school students

Cheryl Smith Garrett, University of Pennsylvania


It is important that more of the urban poor improve their chances for upward mobility. America must raise levels of education and productivity to meet the economic and technological challenges of the twenty-first century when fully one-third of its citizens will be minority group members. The estimated costs of providing for the unemployed and their families is more that $75 billion a year in lost tax revenues, crime and crime prevention, unemployment benefits and welfare. In addition, college participation rates are the traditional measures of inclusiveness in higher education. If colleges hope to meet their goals of diversity, access and the financial imperative of filling classrooms in an era of changing demographics, ways must be found to encourage more low-income youth to prepare for college and enroll. Because the objective of this research was to learn about perceptions rather than to establish cause; to understand rather than to predict; to establish a connection between the range of perceptions expressed and patterns of college attendance; and to look at issues of human choice and meaning, an interpretive research method was appropriate. An ethnographic study was conducted in a comprehensive high school located in an area with high concentration of low-income African American families. Data collection included group and individual interviews of 20 students and their parents relating to the costs and benefits of college attendance; census data on the region in which the school is located; and participants' achievement and attendance records. A second component of the study was provision of information and experiences intended to address questions, misperceptions and information gaps that emerged during participant interviews. The range of perceptions that emerged had three themes: college costs and benefits, employment opportunities and career aspirations, and predominantly white and historically black colleges. It was found that there was insufficient knowledge of the educational system; family aspirations and encouragement did not match; the possibility of attending college was often not seen as "real"; and a formal decision to go or not rarely took place. An important implication is that pre-college programs serving such students should be revamped to better meet their needs. Recommendations for change are presented.

Subject Area

Higher education|Secondary education|Educational sociology|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Garrett, Cheryl Smith, "What college means: Perceptions expressed by a small group of urban high school students" (1998). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9829904.