On the Verge: Community College Students in an Era of Precarity 


Community colleges are poised to reduce income inequality, yet few students complete community college credentials or transfer to four-year colleges and universities. An abundance of research describes how on-campus experiences shape completion, but this research fails to account for the role of students’ external obligations in inhibiting college success. How do students, who need to complete college to earn decent wages, square their higher education goals with work, family, and financial obligations? This longitudinal qualitative study draws on 120 interviews conducted with 30 community college students over two years to investigate how students cope with and respond to external obligations while in college. Drawing on theories of precarity put forth by Kalleberg (2009) and Cooper (2014), I argue that nonacademic experiences are key to understanding college completion. I find that instability is a fundamental feature in students’ nonacademic experiences and how students respond to uncertainty differs by race, social class, gender, and the types of obligations they must manage while in college. These different strategies and practices often result in unequal outcomes--including course failure and withdrawal, stymied academic progress, and dropout--that reproduce social stratification. In building this analysis, I extend and build theories of college completion and 21st century precariousness, illustrating how students cope and come to grips with the increasing precarity of their lives.




Succeeding against All Odds: Cultivating Human Capital in a Community College

Technical education programs have the potential to help people gain the training and education to enter growing fields, earn high wages, and become upwardly mobile. This project, with April Yee (California College Guidance Initiative) draws on interviews with prospective community college students in allied health programs and program faculty and administrators to understand the types and sources of information that community college students utilize when choosing college majors and how the community college shapes that process. We find that students gather information in ad-hoc and informal ways rather than established channels like school counselors, which leads to limited, vague, and even incorrect information about majors and careers. We also find that institutionalized practices—such as lottery systems, admission caps, and prerequisites—shape students’ choices, ultimately excluding and delaying students from realizing the benefits of occupational degrees and certificates.



Educational inequality

2013 - Current

University of California, Davis

Doctoral Candidate, Sociology

Social stratification

Higher education



University of California, Davis

M.A., Sociology


University of California, Santa Cruz

B.A., Psychology summa cum laude

Education policy

Qualitative methods

© 2016 Beth Ann Hart

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