Wilson, Kristin Bailey (2017). 'Capabilites Evident in the Lives of South African College Students' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.




Studies of college student persistence are dominated by theoretical frameworks based in the Tinto Theory of Student Departure, including work I have conducted (i.e., Davidson & Wilson, 2013/2014; Wilson, Smith, Lee, & Stevenson, 2013; Townsend & Wilson, 2006). While many scholars, as well as myself, have criticized the theory as limited because it does not consider the students’ broader life responsibilities and goals, it remains the standard. The theory postulates that when students begin college, they leave their other life responsibilities behind to enter the campus community or culture. Based on their degree of academic and social integration in campus life, they will persist or drop-out. The theory fails to account for the beliefs and values students bring to campus, the many ways students are engaged outside of campus, and the purposes they bring to their study.


One possible corrective for the narrow persistence frameworks is to think about university as a place where human capabilities can be nurtured. Central in this thinking is the work of Amartya Sen (1999). He talked about capabilities as freedoms and the lack of capabilities as unfreedoms. Housing, medical care, freedom from violence are all examples of capabilities or freedoms. Not having them is an unfreedom. Sen challenged nations to look for pockets of unfreedoms in society and use policy to eliminate them. He argued that a human should be able to decide what is meaningful to him/her to do and be, and free societies will find ways to make those capabilities possible. Since his seminal work, Development as Freedom, a number of scholars have applied it to contexts like housing, healthcare, and education. In the realm of education, capabilities theory has been applied to education policy (Vaughan & Walker, 2012; Walker, 2006); learning as a capability (Hinchliffe, 2007; Walker, 2008b); disabled or special needs students (Terzi, 2007); career counseling (Robertson, 2015); poverty and education (Unterhalter, 2012); and the educational landscape in underdeveloped and developing countries (i.e., Flores-Crespo, 2007, higher education in Mexico).


Likewise, I was funded by the U.S. Fulbright Scholars Program to conduct narrative research on the capabilities evident in college student life at the University of Limpopo, Limpopo, South Africa. This proposal is based on the findings from the project.


Research Question


What human capabilities are evident in the lives of college students as they engage in university life?


Literature Review


The capabilities theory has been used to understand poverty broadly and within institutional contexts. For example, Unterhalter (2012) collected data on girls attending secondary schooling in South Africa and three other African countries. She found that capabilities like educational conditions and the expectation of early marriage and pregnancy curtailed educational achievement. McLean and Walker (2012) interviewed students majoring in Engineering at two South African universities to determine if or how students’ value system developed and whether they were willing to work in the public sector after graduation (i.e., infrastructure development). Wilson-Strydom (2015) used the capabilities framework to analysis conceptually widening access to universities in South Africa.


Because South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 is premised on the capabilities theory, applying the theory to research in South Africa has the potential to impact policy-making and revision. Because the theory has been applied in similar contexts with other populations in South Africa, it is not new to the South Africa’s scholarly community. However, it has not been applied to college students.




Robeyns’ (2003) specification of Sen’s capabilities theory is useful for policy research; therefore, the interview protocol and the coding were based on her specification of capabilities (also consulted Nussbaum 2003, 2005, 2015). Her list includes life and physical health; mental well-being; bodily integrity; social relations; political empowerment; education; domestic work; paid work; shelter; mobility; leisure; time-autonomy; respect; and, religion. University of Limpopo students were interviewed about their lives, and the interviews were coded using the capabilities approach. For this paper, 36 student perspectives, as both focus groups and individual interviews, were coded. Technically, the interviewing was directed at noting functionings, or capabilities that are enacted; however, for the purposes of this proposal the word capabilities is used to express functionings as well.




Increasing persistence and matriculation rates at South African universities is an important development goal for the nation. Considering the ways students are experiencing college suggests ways resources can be directed to improve learning conditions for students. Not surprisingly, the findings for this study suggest that intrusive advising, lowering teacher-student ratios, increasing the availability of housing and food are all important goals. However, because South Africa is a nation with a high poverty rate, these findings should not be surprising, and are not all that helpful in the context of resource constraint. The students interviewed for this study are accustomed to large classes, as well as struggling with food and shelter. While easing these strains is a critical goal, understanding how university life develops personal values and beliefs that have the potential to reduce the likelihood of unemployment and poverty for individuals is an important goal as well. This study found students engaged in collegiate life in ways that inspired and changed them. They acted upon many important capabilities as college students, including social relationships, time-autonomy, and engaging in education, religion, and politics. Students expressed strong commitments to various religious sects and political parties as a central aspect of their collegiate life. Their commitments to their programs of study were the impetus for their plans to improve their home villages and townships. In addition, students named struggling with independence then embracing it as one of the great rites of passage, and one they were finding possible at the university. Students also articulated tensions between traditional African culture and Western culture that they were navigating. In sum, the study will detail the capabilities/functionings prevalent in the lives of college students at one South African university.

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