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Understanding Differences in College Enrollment: Race, Class and Cultural Capital

Abstract

Scholarship on race and class differences in educational outcomes has identified cultural capital, or cultural resources that can be utilized to increase educational success, as important mechanisms of educational inequality. However, despite substantial interest, the role of cultural capital in producing inequalities among American students remains unclear. In this research, we use nationally representative data from the Educational Longitudinal Study to clarify the relationships among race, social class, cultural capital and 4-year college enrollment. Using a theoretically based approach to operationalizing social class and measures of both cultural capital possession and activation, this research finds that while black students tend to possess fewer resources than their white counterparts at any class level, they activate cultural capital to a greater degree than white students. Results also show that while cultural capital can explain differences between low-income and middle-income students, a persistent middle-class advantage remains for both black and white students. Additionally, results indicate that at any class level, black students are more likely than their white counterparts to attend a 4-year university. Finally, results show that measures of cultural capital possession and activation have generally independent effects on college enrollment.

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Notes

  1. The Census Bureau reports that the median family income in 2002 was approximately $42,900. The ELS income measure uses 35,000–49,900 as the closest category. Sensitivity analyses using family income above 50,000 as the cutoff for middle income showed substantively identical results to those presented here (US Census Bureau 2003).

  2. We estimated models that included a continuous measure of income and education as well as the race-class group dummy variables. These models were substantively identical to the models presented below.

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Correspondence to David M. Merolla.

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Merolla, D.M., Jackson, O. Understanding Differences in College Enrollment: Race, Class and Cultural Capital. Race Soc Probl 6, 280–292 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-014-9124-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-014-9124-3

Keywords

  • Education
  • Race
  • Social class
  • Cultural capital
  • College enrollment