As inequality and segregation increase within the United States, schools are also becoming
partitioned off by social class in a way that reflects the spatial segregation of the local
neighborhoods they are drawing from. Several states have maintained creative efforts to
desegregate schools using programs to bus in students living further away, but low-income
students are arriving only to find they are often minorities in increasingly wealthy spaces.
Furthermore, low-income students, though few in number in these primarily wealthy schools,
are not a monolithic group, and should not be treated as such. This dissertation uses
structural characteristics of their friendship networks – particularly heterophily – as a
categorizing device with which to better understand the diversity of the low-income
experience for students who are attending wealthy schools.
I combine qualitative methods (in-depth interviews, focus group results) with quantitative ones
(surveys, network analysis) to study not only how low-income students’ experiences and
outcomes might differ from those of their wealthier peers’, but also how those experienced by
low-income students in heterophilous networks might differ from those experienced by
low-income students in homophilous networks. Over and over again, I find that low-income
students in heterophilous networks access information (presumably via their diverse
networks) that allow them to look like, sound like, and otherwise pass as some of their
wealthier friends by incorporating aspects of their peers’ cultural capital into their own toolkits,
thus demonstrating that social class is more plastic and malleable than previously assumed.
Low-income students in homophilous networks, meanwhile, are able to develop a
class-consciousness that allow them to not only talk more freely about their class injuries and
the classism they encounter on campus, but also to think critically about the structural ways
class and race play a role in their lived realities. In the end, however, the agency and
creativity low-income students exhibited in cultivating and maintaining different network-types,
and the consequent information they gleaned and acted upon from those networks, could only
take them so far; for bigger decisions that involved a significant financial outlay, social class
reasserted itself as a powerful force in limiting and curtailing their choices.