Breaking Through the Access Barrier: A Book Review


Complexity: Breaking through the access barrier: How academic capital formation can improve policy in higher education by Edward P. St. John, Shouping Hu, and Amy S. Fisher. Published by Routledge, New York, 2011.

Abstract: St. John et. Al. identify two overarching issues as solutions to the hurdles of college access, including successful degree completion: academic capital formation, and Informing public policy. Topics within those issues boil down to about five components a would-be student culture needs to be successful: state funding for college-level courses and preparedness; support from and for parents; adequate state and federal funding of tuition and expenses; support systems for students; and the student’s own desire to succeed.

In Breaking Through the Access Barrier, studies of three main high school to college programs are evaluated qualitatively and quantitatively, revealing components that hardly come as a surprise to educators, but need to be widely understood by the entire academic community and its support systems. A heavy read, this book takes a deep dive into policies that are designed to help students from marginalized populations, namely first-generation students, and uncovers the unintended consequences of misguided, well-meant interventions.

St. John, et. Al., propose the concept of Academic Capital Formation, the acquiring of the knowledge of the navigation processes, into and throughout college. They suggest that if parents have college experience, their children are much more likely to apply for, attend, and complete college. But for parents who didn’t attend college, it is even more important that they assert themselves into their child’s academic life, making sure they are academically and emotionally prepared for this next step. Additionally, it is important that high schools are given the resources to provide college-level courses, educate students on college and career options, scholarship opportunities and other resources to students.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors assert that we must bolster the human side of the education system, rebuilding it to provide caring and supportive environments for parents and students. In fact, the most successful integrated scholarship programs have a strong family engagement component. Institutions’ impenetrable, business-like atmosphere, draws the student in, but often in a way that strips him of his culture: values, family, heritage, autonomy.

So why so much emphasis on college? “These forces reproduce the middle-class and elite in society,” the authors say. For most large corporations and also the government to be sustainable, it is essential to have a strong working class, as well as a population of wealthy individuals. So the return on investment when the government or big corporations give grants and scholarships is worth it to these agencies.

One big issue the authors point out is the constant reinvention of the wheel in the public school system. Changing math curriculum, revamping the reading program, shifting focus away from the humanities all works to erode parents’ trust in the educational system, say the authors, to the point of parental complacency of their students dropping out.

The three intervention programs the authors compared and contrasted were the Gates’ Millenium Scholars, Washington State Scholars (also subsidized by Gates), and Indiana’s Twenty-First Century Scholars. These programs not only provide financial support, they focus on a more holistic approach with tutoring, mentoring, financial counseling, academic and career advising, and family events.

The authors say that policies that have failed in the past, including those designed to improve access. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, research on college access influenced the creation of the Pell grant. But this didn’t increase enrollment as expected. Meanwhile, other federal funding was being cut. Additionally, research was not able to show the efficacy of the Pell grant, so the emphasis switched to loans. Pell grants declined, and left those with low incomes out in the cold. It wasn’t until 2002 that this policy was reversed and aid was restored at more adequate rates. The policies were not examined and implemented in a thoughtful way, where each of the moving parts was accounted and planned for. Additionally, the authors say, “the social processes of change in schools and across generations weren’t considered.

Digging deeper to the heart of the problem, past the role of the parents, the authors see the need for intervention in entire communities of families who are historically denied college access: families in the inner-city, poor schools, those with paltry aid, social environments that reinforce school-to-work, welfare, or prison.

Another case of misguided policies was during the Regan era, when research showed that students who graduated from college had better middle school algebra scores. But correlation does not equal causation, so when the Education Department mandated new standards nationwide, the number of college students did not increase over time. While many more students were better prepared, they still did not attend college. This is because the administration did not consider financial access.
To provide a successful intervention and rework educational policies the system needs to be looked at as a weakened hose. Somewhere on that hose, in at least one spot, there’s going to be a bubble. When you clamp down on that bubble, what happens? It remedies the problem by strengthening the area, but other areas of the hose become compromised and begin to bulge. The only solution is a simultaneous multi-clamp approach.

This book shares in a straightforward manner time-tested, multi-pronged solutions for seeing a student through to success. However, its non-conversational tone reads more like a research report, so it is very heavy and dry at times. The methods of research were responsibly carried out and quite thoughtful, as were the theses for change. The valuable insight provided encompasses a holistic approach to interventions and advising, which I think is most effective.

































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