Papers in Progress

Human Capital, Signaling or Uncertainty?  The Labor Market Consequences of For-Profit and Non-Profit Education Credentials (With David S. Pedulla, UT Austin, Equal Authorship)

Opening the Black Box of Coding: Bringing Qualitative Data Analysis into the Twenty-First Century (With Mary C. Waters, Harvard University)


Expressive Education: The Meaning of College and the 
Educational Pathways of Disadvantaged Young Mothers

For Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 2014

I employ an integrated, mixed-method approach to data analysis to understand how a group of economically disadvantaged young mothers makes decisions about post-secondary education over a six year period. Using data from The Resilience in Survivors of Katrina (RISK) Project, I match in-depth interviews with 85 women to four waves of longitudinal survey data. By integrating survey and interview data on a single respondent from the beginning of the analytic process, I am able to understand each woman’s narrative in the context of her unfolding life course trajectory. I find that the narrative meaning a young woman attaches to a college degree is related both to the trajectory of her transition to adulthood and to the form her higher education pathway takes.   In particular, women facing the most difficult trajectories over the course of the study relied most heavily on expressive logic, associating the pursuit of a college degree with continued opportunity to “be somebody.” Those mobilizing expressive logic report patterns of persistence—many programs, many institutions—that would be difficult to explain from a human capital perspective. I argue that, in the context of unstable lives, the pursuit of education allows struggling young mothers to assert claims of moral worth, despite a lack of material evidence to support their continued aspirations for upward mobility.  The ubiquity of for-profit educational providers and online learning technologies facilitate persistence--and the maintenance of expressive logic—but with uncertain benefits and not without substantial costs.

Is This Place a Scam? Seeking College Information via Social Media

For presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society, February 2014

Sociologists demonstrate that quality information about educational options is an important resource for young people as they plan for the future; college aspirations alone are not enough. This is particularly true for low-income and first-generation college students, who often do not have access to information-rich informal networks.  Recently, the rapid expansion of for-profit educational institutions and distance-learning technologies has substantially altered the landscape of the American higher education marketplace, particularly for non-traditional college populations.  The logic of marketization suggests that consumer choice will follow quality.  Based on content analysis of nearly 29,000 posts on the official Facebook walls of four for-profit and three community colleges, I demonstrate how institutional representatives and students work together to construct the meaning and value of their educational options.  For-profit institutions are more actively involved in these interactions, compared to community colleges.  My findings indicate that students’ interpretations of value may substantially differ from official criteria of quality such as completion rates, employment rates and debt burden. Understanding this process helps us make sense of student decision-making.  Unless these front-end experiences are backed up upon student enrollment, there is reason to question the logic of the market as an engine for educational improvement.