American Sociological Association

Instrumental and Expressive Education: College Planning in the Face of Poverty

Nearly all young people in the United States aspire to a college degree, but many fail to complete college in a timely manner. Does this lack of attainment reflect abandoned college plans? I analyze mixed-methods data from a five-year study of 700 low-income mothers at two Louisiana community colleges. Hurricane Katrina displaced respondents and interrupted their college educations; respondents had to decide whether, how, and why to return to school. Few women earned degrees during the study, but survey data indicate that the rate of reenrollment and intentions to complete were high. Interview data reveal the cultural logics supporting continued plans for a return to college. Instrumentally, respondents believed education would result in better employment. Expressively, the moral status afforded students supported respondents’ narratives of upward mobility despite the difficulties they faced. The logic of human capital investment dominates policy and academic discussions of education’s value, but I find the symbolic meaning of a college degree also shapes plans for college return and college decision making long into adulthood. Plans to return persist long beyond the objective probability of earning a degree, and despite respondents’ difficult experiences, due to the expressive value college plans add to these young women’s lives.


Deterding, N. M.





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