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Constance Iloh

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Qualitative Research and Vocational Higher Education Institutions

careersA growing amount of the discourse on bolstering the U.S. workforce has emphasized how higher education can facilitate such growth. Particular emphasis has been paid to vocationally-oriented institutions of postsecondary education and if they are doing a suitable job in preparing students and getting them jobs. My own research agenda now centers on providing an equitable picture of student experiences and conditions of higher education institutions, particularly for-profit colleges and even community colleges.

In using qualitative methods to explore these institutions, it has been extremely important for my own growth not to use traditional higher education institutions as a baseline to understand community colleges and for-profit colleges. Comparison provides a window of understanding, but this is not the extent of knowledge one can know. This is why some studies that intently focus on one institutional type may also be fruitful, even if the sample size is one or there is no comparison group. I have found that working to bracket my previous inclinations about vocational institutions has been vital, as my understanding of traditional four-year public and private institutions have shaped a great amount of understating of the field of higher education. Judgments about other institutions based on what we know can ultimately hinder our analysis and conclusions. Such occurrences may seem but small and without consequence, but ultimately impact our knowledge, potential policy, and the lives of students and various stakeholders.

If comparison is to be done between vocational institutions, it is essential to consider the ways in which for-profit colleges and community colleges are different, as there are institutional missions, demands, and constraints that will inherently vary. While transfer may also be an additional goal at community colleges, this is not necessarily the case with for-profit institutions. Funding constraints and profit obligations are just a few other aspects to consider. In this way qualitative research encourages scholars to do the difficult work of uncovering the spectrum of unique cultures, climates, structures, and identity of more vocationally-oriented institutions.

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