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Theses Doctoral

Organizational Effects on Bachelor's Degree Completion for the New Majority

Ciocca Eller, Christina

Higher education in the United States has experienced a revolution over the past half-century, with more students of color and low-income students attending college than ever before. This compositional change has emerged in parallel with an exponential expansion of the higher education sector, both in its size and variety. As a result, racially-diverse and less-resourced students attending public and for-profit commuter colleges, rather than white, high-resource students attending private residential colleges, comprise today’s “new majority” of college enrollees. Yet despite new majority students' increase in college attendance, many such students arrive at college underprepared to succeed and the colleges they attend are ill-prepared to receive them. This dissertation investigates the tensions produced by the expansion and diversification of the higher education sector in the United States, analyzing how organizational characteristics and practices, shaped by institutional and cultural arrangements (e.g. normative accountability and race- or class-based discrimination), impact inequality in individual outcomes by race and socioeconomic status.
The empirical context for this work is a large, urban, public university system that I refer to as, “Metropolitan University,” which includes 11 baccalaureate-granting colleges that share many structural and compositional similarities with the colleges attended by the majority of enrollees in the United States. Using a combination of longitudinal administrative records, longitudinal interview data, and information from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), together with core insights from the literatures in stratification, organizations, and the sociology of culture, this dissertation shows that higher education organizations independently play an appreciable role in producing inequality in students' bachelor's degree (BA) completion outcomes. I arrive at this core finding through three papers that draw on distinct data sources, analytical strategies, and theoretical lenses to evaluate BA completion outcomes in the Metropolitan University context.
In the first paper, I argue that the rise of accountability standards in higher education unintentionally has obscured the role of colleges and universities in producing unequal student outcomes. Using longitudinal administrative data and fixed-effects estimation strategies, I show that statistical measures that isolate the independent effects of colleges on student outcomes often yield very different understandings of effectiveness than measures required by federal agencies or produced by the popular press. Once I employ more appropriate statistical strategies, I find unexpected variation in college effects across the university system as well as heterogeneous effects given students’ racial background, family income, and transfer-in status. In the second paper, I show that academic factors such as students' success in passing initial “gateway” coursework and the field of study trajectories colleges shape correlate strongly with college effectiveness and provide an initial explanation of differences in college performance. Yet longitudinal interview data collected at three colleges within the system during one academic year, allow me to identify other explanatory mechanisms. Specifically, in the third paper, I examine interactions between students’ belief systems concerning the meaning and value of higher education, the symbolic boundaries they create to separate themselves from dropouts, and their socio-academic experiences during the first year of college. Belief-boundary interactions contribute to students’ discrepant outcomes, though not as powerfully as students' field of study pathways and the support they receive from college advisors. Together, these three papers work to connect micro-, meso-, and macro- levels of analysis, illustrating the extent of individual and group-based inequality in higher education while also acknowledging and interrogating the organizational and institutional structures that produce it.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
DiPrete, Thomas A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 28, 2019