Embedded Disparities: How Universities Structure Pathways and Barriers to Graduate School
In this study, I examine how low-income Hmong, Chinese, and Mexican American students decide to pursue graduate school or not as well as the resources and networks they have for doing so at two public research universities. I ask the research questions: 1) What factors influence low-income and racially marginalized students’ aspirations to pursue graduate school?, 2) How does the formal and informal infrastructure of their educational institution influence their aspirations?, and 3) How are students racialized within this process? Through in-depth interviews with 48 students, I find that these students are independent in their decision-making of graduate school and other post-baccalaureate pathways. Because they are first-generation students and professionals, many of them lack mentors or family members whom they could ask about these pathways. Instead, they decide on what would be best for them and their future. Some do have university mentors who help them and steer them in new directions but very few have that support. Family members, especially parents, do aspire students to do better but do not pressure them into graduate school or certain career paths. I also find that students who are embedded in the research and academic networks are more likely to learn about graduate school than those not embedded in these networks. Lastly, I find that students use a transformational capital process to help them gain access to information, opportunities, and resources for graduate school or other post-baccalaureate goals. They transform the capital through seeking out mentorship, modeling what others are doing, and taking self-initiative to do things themselves. These findings show how underrepresented students create agency and capital in ways that benefit them. They also indicate how universities may fall short in helping these students prepare for graduate school or other post-baccalaureate pathways.