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Enduring Inequality: How Social Class Shapes Where High-Achieving Students Apply to College


Higher education destinations continue to be a significant source of stratification in the United States (Ayalon, Grodsky, Gamoran, and Yogev 2008; Gladieux 2004). Among high-achieving students, research studies consistently point to the significance of social class in shaping where they attend college: students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to end up at less selective institutions compared to their higher income counterparts with similar academic qualifications (McPherson and Schapiro 2006; Hoxby and Avery 2012; Hill and Winston 2006). A key reason for social class differences in access to selective colleges is that few highly able, socioeconomically disadvantaged students actually apply to such institutions in the first place (Radford 2013; Hoxby and Avery 2012; Lopez Turley, Santos, and Ceja 2007). Yet, the process through which social class shapes college application choices among such students is not well understood.

This dissertation draws upon in-depth interviews with 46 high-achieving students from the San Francisco Bay Area to examine how social class shapes where students apply to college. It reveals how inequality is maintained when students from lower-class backgrounds (lower-SES) limit their choices of colleges to selective and nonselective institutions close to home in California whereas their middle and upper-middle class (higher-SES) counterparts apply to the top selective colleges across the U.S. More specifically, this research identifies two mechanisms of social stratification by showing how institutions and families of the middle- and upper-middle class work to procure advantages by cultivating dispositions among their children for specific types of higher education opportunities, specifically leading colleges and universities in the form of mostly private selective colleges across the U.S. First, I show that higher-SES students attend schools in which they are exposed to a college-going culture that expects them to only apply to the top colleges across the country. In contrast, most lower-SES students attend high schools and participate in programs in which college is one of multiple paths after high school. Lower-SES students are encouraged to attend a four-year college in California, regardless of academic quality. Second, I demonstrate that family upbringing and experiences foster an understanding of college among higher-SES students as an opportunity to leave their families and immerse themselves in a different part of the country. In contrast, most lower-SES students understand college as a continuation of family interdependence that requires them to take into account the real and perceived needs and wishes of the family, which places geographic limitations on where they can apply and attend college

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