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Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Sociology

Year Degree Awarded

2018

Month Degree Awarded

May

First Advisor

Joya Misra

Subject Categories

Educational Sociology | Inequality and Stratification | Sociology of Culture

Abstract

This dissertation focuses on how class background and institutional context shape students’ experiences of faculty mentorship, academic success strategies, and the relationship of college values and academic decision-making. In this comparative study, I draw from 68 interviews with working- and upper-middle-class students at a regional and flagship university to identify how institutional variation matters across moderately-selective public universities, the kind where the majority of four-year college students matriculate.

Mentorship, often informal, is a resource most easily accessed by students with preexisting cultural capital—specifically, the knowledge that mentoring relationships are available and advantageous, and the skills for cross-status interaction with professors. In this way, mentorship can be understood as a mechanism of social reproduction: it is often critical for accessing additional resources, such as letters of recommendation, and connections to cocurricular opportunities (e.g., research assistantships). Academic success strategies, shaped by class- cultural norms for how to be a student and engage with authority figures, have unequal traction in college. I focus on the strategies students use to navigate common trouble-spots like a missed deadline or a disappointing grade, finding pronounced differences by class background. Finally, regardless of class background, students claimed to value college as an opportunity for personal development and well-roundedness; however, only working-class students chose their courses in a way that was consistent with these values, while upper-middle-class students were more instrumentalist, prioritizing a high GPA and career preparation.

Institutional context mattered significantly in each case. Class differences in mentorship experiences, academic strategies and decision-making were much less pronounced at the regional university compared to the flagship. Working-class students at a regional university accessed mentoring relationships despite lacking start-up cultural capital, requested extensions despite lacking a sense of entitlement, and integrated goals of career preparation and personal growth when selecting classes. Upper-middle-class students at the regional university were less likely to contest their grades and did not choose courses to maximize their postgraduate competitiveness. I theorize the difference using organizational habitus, demonstrating how the particular structural and cultural characteristics of an institution combine to shape how class matters in college.

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