Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Leonard Baca

Second Advisor

Kathy Escamilla

Third Advisor

Lucinda Soltero-Gonzales

Fourth Advisor

John Hoover

Fifth Advisor

Michael Radelet


Despite the apparent growth in the population of adults returning to school following an interruption in their schooling, current research on this population is negligible. Furthermore, the little research that does exist relies on a decades-old model of barriers and baggage: that this population faces so many barriers and carries so much baggage holding them back that a return to school and completion of a program of study is unachievable.

This qualitative study extends this model with a conceptual framework that focuses on assets possessed by returning students. These assets include the social capital - the network of family, friends and acquaintances - that the returning student can leverage to support their return to school. Using a combination of in-depth interviews and document analysis, this study illuminates the experiences faced by nine adult returning students as they enter a new and unfamiliar academic environment and the social capital they can leverage as they return and complete a program of study. Study participants have all experienced an interruption in their schooling, and have returned to school via a structured community college program for paraeducators that leads to an associate's degree in education.

Findings show that the participants of this study do have significant social capital that they leverage effectively to support their return, and that the leveraging of their social capital has contributed to their transformation into confident and creative problem solvers. However, this appears limited to the participants' home front. The participants' social capital seldom appears to support their navigation of the complex academic environment that includes relations with their cohort and interactions inside the classroom. This study further finds that the academic environment posed challenges for several of the participants, challenges that included having to cope with poor instruction and problematic interactions with cohort members. The participants found few resources to assist them in resolving these problematic situations. These findings encourage program directors, community college administrators, and policy makers to develop new programs and improve instruction to better support returning students such that they can complete a program of study and earn a degree.