Monday, February 2, 2015

Our College Choice: Uncovering a Familial- and Culturally-Based College Decision-Making Process

by Michelle M. Espino, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park

My research interests regarding institutional cultures as well as community contexts that affect and inform educational achievement, outcomes, and experiences along the P-20 pipeline for racial/ethnic minorities are based on uncovering and addressing my own journey as a Chicana, middle class, first-generation college student who is the first in my extended families to obtain a doctorate.  My work focuses on countering deficit-based models about Latina/o students and their families because I believe that various forms of community cultural wealth as well as limited forms of the cultural capital valued by the dominant culture enhanced my journey through higher education (Espino, 2014; Yosso, 2005, 2006).

During my childhood, my parents and extended kin shared wisdom around the kitchen table that moved beyond formal schooling and centered on our family’s cultural assets.  These stories helped me understand my role within the family, and what was possible and appropriate within familial and cultural contexts (Espino, 2007).  My family’s stories and consejos (advice) imparted upon me an intergenerational investment in my educational success and personal development.  I learned that being bién educada meant that my morals and values were foundational rather than supplemental to my formal education (Auerbach, 2006; Valdes, 1996).  Personally and professionally I honor the imaginative aspect of agency embedded within the stories shared through my work as a scholar, as well as my lived experience as a Chicana, a daughter, and an aunt.  A year ago, the intersections of these identities unearthed tensions between lived experience and scholarly discourse that have profoundly changed my perspective on college access and choice.

Last spring, I was on a conference call with my parents.  My nephew, whom they had raised, was ready to make a decision about which university he planned to attend: one of my alma maters or the university where I work as a faculty member.  I was nervous.  The universities had been pared down from eight institutions that we had researched together based on location, prestige, and his career interests—some of these schools had already made their choice about my nephew, much to our disappointment.  As a first-generation college student, my own college choice seemed a bit happenstance and I believed that providing an organized and methodical approach would prove less arduous for my nephew and our family.  Because I was the only one in my family with a college degree and because I had research and professional expertise in the field of higher education, my parents expected that their investment in my formal education and their (in)direct influence on my college aspirations and trajectory (Ceja, 2004) would eventually lead to educational opportunities and success for my nephew.  As Alvarez (2010) noted, Latina/o families often direct questions and concerns to their older children or other family members who have attended college: it was my turn to give back.

True to what I understood as a higher education scholar, I intended to provide my nephew with a range of options with a resulting college choice that he would make independent of me and his family that reflected his hard work and effort.  I wanted to believe that the research I had read about college choice would accurately reflect my nephew’s decision-making process.  Rather, what I uncovered were moments when my parents and I collaborated to steer his educational development from preschool through to the AP courses he took in high school.  Interactions with teachers, negotiations with school administrators, and imparting our expectations and hopes for my nephew around the kitchen table had been carefully orchestrated and deliberated among the three of us.  Our focus increased in intensity after we enrolled him in a summer college preparation program at my home institution before his senior year in high school.  While he stayed with me, we talked through the college admissions process and, in the fall, scheduled weekly meetings to talk about his applications and scholarship forms.  At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve we submitted his federal financial aid application, knowing that this was critical structural opportunity for someone who qualified as an independent student.  My parents and I collectively held our breath with anticipation and a touch of sadness.  My nephew decided to move across the country to the university where I work.  His choice, although seemingly made independent of his family, was an outcome based on a series of choices that my parents and I had made and through which he (re)negotiated to achieve his (and our) goal of attending college (Martinez, 2013).  His college choice was actually our college choice.

As I observe my nephew’s college experience unfolding, I return to this moment when our family’s hard work and effort, our prayers and aspirations culminated in this one decision—part of which was made by him, by us, and for us by those who do not look like us or share the same experience as us.  Choices are being made, but with little regard for families and communities.  I am troubled by college choice models that offer logical and linear processes within nested contexts that do not accurately reflect what happened and is happening in our lived experience as a family connected across culture, faith, and love.  College choice models do not reflect the systemic and symbolic violence within educational institutions along the P-20 pipeline that is occurring against Communities of Color, low-income communities, and those who are most marginalized.  How can college truly be a choice for these (my) communities, if there are significant academic preparedness and achievement gaps that make the pathway to college, at best, an uncertain endeavor?  Can choosing among colleges (if even a possibility for some) truly be a choice when institutions are not culturally engaged or responsive to the needs of Communities of Color?

I argue that what is missing from our research on college choice is that we do not draw attention to the extent to which social and institutional structures narrow or widen the pathway to college and resulting choice(s) based on prescribed notions of merit, need, and fit.  As institutional agents, we do not necessarily consider how collectivist orientations operate within and among immediate and extended kin who bridge the worlds of academe, community, and culture so that the best decisions can be made with the full support of family and community.  College choice models lead us to believe that there is individual choice, without interrogation of the sorting mechanisms and institutional policies and practices that result in predestined choices.  Choices have already been determined by the values of admissions counselors, by bureaucracies that make it difficult for first-generation students to navigate, and by state and national policies that preclude some from making any reasonable and logical choice.  Yet, we still believe that these choices are our own.

College choice models in their present form do not reflect the aspirational and familial forms of capital that my family brought to the kitchen table every day of my nephew’s young life and over the phone each night in those final moments of high school when he and I reviewed essays and searched college websites.  His final decision was a communal choice, an amassing of all of our knowledge from lived experience and formal education to offer him choices that he would then get to consider and name for himself.  Based on my lived experience as a scholar, daughter, and aunt, I call for a different way of thinking about college choice, which is little more than a “cruel fiction” when considering the lived experiences of students of color and low-income students (Corbett, 2007, p. 30).  We need to conceptualize a new, culturally relevant model that looks less at choice as if this is a freedom and more at how bounded choices are forced upon students through their secondary schooling that may not even lead to college and beyond.  We must interrogate how choices are siphoned off by the very stratified system that purports that students would actually make a choice about a) going to college and b) choosing among many schools with little regard for the economic and emotional impact that leaving one’s home can have on both the individual and the community.  We must hold our institutions and ourselves as institutional agents accountable to not just make space for the marginalized but to evaluate the imposition of values that privilege some and marginalize others, that theorize choice and persistence, that support some on their educational journeys and shut others out.

When I reflect on the circumstances that brought me and my family to this point and when I consider my role in supporting my nephew’s pathway to college, I realize that my college-educated background was not just a factor to be added into the equation.  Along with my family, I helped to construct the pathways that my nephew now follows.  As a family, we offered guidance and reflection, and drew upon our community, familial, and ancestral resources to guide him on his path.  His choice was our choice.  His success will be our success.


Alvarez, C. L.  (2010).  Familial negotiation of the Latina college choice process: An   exploration of how parents and their daughters obtain and utilize information to navigate the process.  Enrollment Management Journal, 4(4), 57-80.

Auerbach, S.  (2006).  “If the student is good, let him fly”: Moral support for college among
Latino immigrant parents.  Journal of Latinos and Education, 5(4), 275-292.

Ceja, M.  (2004).  Chicana college aspirations and the role of parents: Developing educational
resiliency.  Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 3(4), 338-362.

Corbett, M. J.  (2007).  Learning to leave: The irony of schooling in a coastal community.
Halifax: Fernwood Publishers.

Espino, M. M.  (2007, November).  Working in the field: Different perspectives on Mexican
parental involvement and college aspirations.  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education: Louisville.

Espino, M. M.  (2014).  Exploring the role of community cultural wealth in graduate school
access and persistence for Mexican American Ph.D.s.  American Journal of Education, 120(4), 545-575.

Martinez, M. A.  (2013).  (Re)considering the role familismo plays in Latina/o high school students’ college choice.  The High School Journal, 97(1), 21-40.

Valdes, G.  (1996).  Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and
schools.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Yosso, T. J.  (2005).  Whose culture has capital? A CRT discussion of community cultural wealth.  Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69-91.

Yosso, T. J.  (2006).  Critical race counterstories along the Chicana/Chicano educational pipeline.  New York: Routledge.


  1. Dr. Espinosa - I read your thoughtful and timely article with great interest. My research focuses on how to engage first-generation students and their families in the college knowledge process by honoring and acknowleding their cultural and familial capital. As you so succinctly point out "choices are being made but with little regard for families and communities." I have been fortunate to work with local K-12 educators and administrators who recognize and work against the status quo. Over the past 3 years of research, I have moved from the role of a practitioner/researcher working directly with parents to a practioner/research working at a county-wide level. In my current study I am working with administrators on the county level to empower school guidance counselors to engage their families on a local level. The importance of this cannot be ignored - for too long educators and families have not had the tools to recognize and acknowledge one another as allies in the aspirations and success of their students. This complex and multi-faceted issue is one we must take action on as a P-20 community. Our future student's successes depend upon it.

  2. Dra. Espino, thank you for speaking from the heart of community. I agree that the models of college choice do not account for the reality of many of the students in the pipeline today. It is time to create new models, to open space for new ways of thinking about how we can support students as they anticipate and perhaps think about or plan life after high school. New K-16 models would help institutions provide better guidance and support for students from diverse cultural and demographic backgrounds. As you rightly point out, often this would include making families, not just individuals, our focus. I am encouraged that this is beginning to happen through the insistent work of scholars of color and others. Si se puede.