The importance of what students care about : a grounded theory exploration of student preferences and pathways.


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Students make countless decisions in college. Yet, few studies on student pathways through college consider the importance of what students care about. A review of the higher education literature devoted to student pathways through college revealed a segmented view of student identity, a dilemma-based view of moral evaluation, and a tendency to overemphasize either student agency or social structures in the evaluation of student pathways. This study is based on the premise that exploring what students care about—as conceptualized by Frankfurt (1988)—could contribute a more human understanding of students and their pathways to the field of higher education. More specifically, this qualitative, grounded theory study explored what students cared about and how those cares shaped their pathways through college. Despite subtle nuances and emphases, the top three categories of student cares were the same across all the student sub-groups I explored—students cared about relationships and community, academics and learning, and personal growth and wellbeing. These cares, in turn, laid the foundation for an exploration of the process by which these cares informed student pathways. I found that students pursued what they cared about in a four-stage cycle wherein the final stage of one cycle became the first stage for the subsequent cycle. Derived from these findings, the theory of fluid coherence describes how each student’s pathway can be understood as a coherent string of care pursuits and prioritizations through time. The findings of this study suggest that student cares were not clashing moral principles as depicted in Kohlbergian (1981) dilemmas, but matters of internal, individually and contextually situated, evaluations unique to each student. Therefore, this study demonstrates the ability to conduct empirical research assuming a more functional understanding of humanity that draws upon the arguments of scholars (e.g. Atkins, 2010) who eschew an abstract, a-practical conceptualization of identity in favor of one that motivates human decision-making in moral space (Taylor, 1989). The decisions students make in college are bound up with deeper decisions about what to care about and how those cares construct an understanding of who they are.



Student pathways. Student success. Ethics. Grounded theory. Identity.