For students from working-class backgrounds, a college degree is often viewed as the most reliable way to achieve upward mobility. Although existing studies assessing upward mobility in college tend to focus on the racially exclusionary experiences of Hispanics or the devaluation of working-class culture, this study bridges the gap between race and social class studies. This research adopts a racialized class lens to investigate how the upwardly mobile trajectories of working class, Mexican-origin students differ based on the selectivity of the school they attend as well as the community in which that school is located.
Using semi-structured interviews and participant observation, I compare the experiences of 60 working class, Mexican-origin students across two universities. Thirty respondents attended a moderately selective, flagship institution located in an urban, middle-class metropolis and their co-ethnic counterparts attended a regional, Hispanic-serving institution. I conducted a total of 60 student interviews and recorded in-depth observations for a 16-week period.
Whereas key institutional processes, such as classroom content, leadership program opportunities and organizational cultural offerings challenged students to alter discourse techniques and lifestyle patterns in the moderately selective, flagship school, students attending the regionally accessible university experienced fewer challenges to do so. The flagship university thus valorized mainstream, middle-class cosmopolitan cultures but provided limited opportunities for student respondents to exercise valuable ethnic cultural skills. Students attending the Hispanic-serving, regional university, on the other hand, experienced their working-class, racial-ethnic culture as dominant cultural capital in the university but had fewer opportunities to develop mainstream, middle-class cultural skills.
This research illuminates how a horizontally stratified university system hinders access to valued forms of cultural knowledge. I argue that while a four-year college degree facilitates access to middle-class occupations, contextual characteristics associated with a school’s selectivity shape the extent to which Hispanic students can access skills that enable them to navigate mainstream cultural arenas and remain engaged in non-dominant ones. Thus, inequality in the college-for-all era becomes increasingly characterized not solely based on overt forms of exclusion but by the cultural tradeoffs involved as upwardly-mobile minorities attempt to broaden their opportunity structures.