Unmasking Power in the Discourse of Four-Year Graduation Initiatives

Veronica Adele Jones, Ryan A. Miller
Journal for the Study of Postsecondary and Tertiary Education  •  Volume 5  •  2020  •  pp. 145-166

The following questions guided this study: 1) What are the major types of four-year graduation policies and plans being implemented by public four-year colleges and universities? 2) What explicit and implicit messages do leaders convey in constructing four-year graduation policies and plans? 3) What messages might four-year graduation policies and plans send to minoritized student populations?

Four-year graduation is a common goal across public institutions; to this end, university leaders often construct a four-year graduation policy or pledge. Scholars have not systematically examined the discourse within these policies to uncover the underlying structural barriers that may hinder minoritized students from achieving this goal. A one-size-fits all approach in policy can inadvertently promote a discourse of individual success or failure.

In order to view policy as discourse and explore the tensions within the narrative of timely graduation, the authors utilized critical discourse analysis to explore the discourse within four-year graduation plans across 19 public, four-year universities.

Institutional leaders often attempted to create mutually responsible commitments with students, but our reading of four-year graduation plans suggests that the majority of leaders created a uniform narrative, failing to acknowledge and make provisions for disproportionate impacts on minoritized populations.

Utilizing seven building tasks, we provided descriptive categories of four-year graduation initiatives, followed by interpretation and evaluation of the messaging conveyed by institutional leaders in constructing policies. Findings revealed that many universities often place expectations on students with varying levels of corresponding resources or without the needs of minoritized student populations in mind.

The authors offer recommendations about ways that university leaders through policy creation can acknowledge the structural barriers that affect students’ pathways to completion.

Because of the underlying acceptance behind the problem that drives graduation policy (i.e., students should graduate in four years), a critical approach allows scholars to examine the text of policies in ways that might illuminate the viewpoints that leaders fail to consider.

Four-year graduation initiatives should move beyond inspiring rhetoric to tackle the true structural barriers (e.g. unavailable courses, weak advising, developmental courses as stumbling blocks) for which institutional leaders as the creators of policy should be held accountable.

Additional studies focusing on the rhetoric of student success initiatives can reveal language centered on dominant ways of knowing.

four-year graduation, timely graduation, degree completion, discourse, criti-cal discourse analysis
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