Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Education

First Advisor

Ben Kirshner

Second Advisor

David Boromisza-Habashi

Third Advisor

Derek Briggs

Fourth Advisor

Kris Gutierrez

Fifth Advisor

Kevin O'Conner

Abstract

There is a long tradition in college access research suggesting that low-income parents without college diplomas are either unable to help their children or do not value college education. Additionally, these studies tend to neglect the experiences of rural students. I attend to these issues by drawing on Cultural/Historical Activity Theory and using two sets of interviews with 26 first-generation, rural students to complicate the current understanding of postsecondary pathways.

This study found that parents and school personnel provided a variety of college-going supports. Although supports differed, both articulated a "College at All Costs" Discourse, which posits a certain set of rational choice assumptions about students' post-secondary options. The tenets of this Discourse advocate for students to make whatever sacrifices necessary to attain a college degree.

In order to understand students' final decisions, the second phase of my analysis focused on the thirteen seniors. Of these seniors, nine scaled back their plans from either a 4-year to a 2- year institution (n=6) or from an out-of-state to an in-state (n=3) institution, two students persisted in their plans, and two students' shifts were not measurable. This study highlights tensions between the "College at All Costs" discourse and locally situated factors tied to students' family relationships and finances.

Although students articulated ambitious post-secondary goals in the first round of interviews, as graduation neared, most students' post-secondary plans shifted to account for these tensions between their family practices and the messages articulated in the "College at All Costs" Discourse. The two students who persisted in their plans had differing experiences than their peers. These students were not exposed to the same parental concerns with feasibility and they both had a positive family history of college-going.

This study is significant in recognizing the ways that the "College at All Costs" Discourse contradicts family practices and blocks honest discussion about what makes sense for a particular student in relation to her or his family. This leads students to change their post-secondary decisions late in their senior years, which may be preventable by including parents' voices and recognizing family practices earlier in the process.

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