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Choices and Chances: The Impact of Widening Access Policies on Non-Traditional Students in a Canadian College Open Access


Other title
college students
first generation students
higher education
widening access
mature students
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Servage, Laura A
Supervisor and department
Kachur, Gerald (Educational Policy Studies
Chovanec, Donna (Educational Policy Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Taylor, Alison (Educational Policy Studies)
Briton, Derek (Interdisciplinary Studies, Athabasca University)
Archer, Walter (Faculty of Extension)
Watt, Bonita (Secondary Education)
Sawchuk, Peter (Department of Leadership, Higher & Adult Education, University of Toronto)
Department of Educational Policy Studies
Adult Education
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Education
Degree level
Citing statistical data that continues to show that lifetime earnings increase with post-secondary education attainment, policies in OECD countries, including Canada, promote universally accessible post-secondary education as a strategy to redress both economic and social inequality (Field, 2006; Canadian Council on Learning [CCL], 2009). However, does education in fact lead to better life chances? My research question asked whether, and to what extent, widening access policies can be expected to deliver on their promise to reduce social inequality through enhanced participation in the labour market. To address this question, I studied the experiences of six first-generation female adults who came to college to pursue diplomas in Practical Nursing. Biographical accounts of students’ learning journeys were complemented by insights from interviews with informants at the students’ college, who work closely with marginalized and first generation populations. Normatively, the treatment of social inequality always boils down to whether we ought to “blame the person” or “blame society.” In the case of my study, then, it was important to carefully theorize and consider relationships between social structures and individual agency. To this end, I used an ecological model of human development to extend and situate a Bourdieusian analysis. Findings show that navigation of post-secondary institutional complexities requires a practical “institutional know-how” and hard-earned cultural capital in the form of skillful self-advocacy. Institutions can provide no assurance of the acquisition of this needed cultural capital, and in some instance may even work against it. My study findings support my claim that widened access to post-secondary education cannot redress social inequality, and in fact may exacerbate it. I close the dissertation with the argument that credentialism essentially functions to obscure and reinforce structural injustices in the distribution of labour itself. Future research is proposed, in which the moral economy may be used as an analytical lens on work and learning pathways to reconfigure the relationships between credentialed and workplace learning in more socially just ways.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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