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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Naomi Gerstel

Second Advisor

Jonathan Wynn

Third Advisor

Ofer Sharone

Fourth Advisor

Ezekiel Kimball

Subject Categories

Educational Sociology | Family, Life Course, and Society | Sociology


The “college experience” is normatively presented as enacting independence, often while financially relying on parents. This view normalizes white, middle-class models of college and family. The three interrelated papers comprising this dissertation investigate race, class, and gender differences and inequalities at college through the lens of students’ talk of family. These inductive, qualitative studies draw on semi-structured intensive interviews with undergraduates to explore divergent ways they make sense of college, family, and their self-development. Analyses highlight the multifaceted, and sometimes contradictory meanings participants attach to themes commonly presented as simple and objective (i.e. “paying for college,” “independence,” and “adulthood”). Findings indicate that surface-level understandings of these concepts cannot capture the diversity of students’ lives and perspectives. Two papers analyze student talk of paying for college across 112 interviews. In “The Stuff They Have to Pay For,” I demonstrate how students’ beliefs about what family can provide shape their understanding of both “paying for college” and the consequences of economic inequalities. In “Who’s Chipping In?” I investigate which family members students cite in relation to both receiving and giving financial support. I find that race and class jointly construct their talk of family financial responsibility and care. In the final paper, “I’m an Adult Now, and I Want You to Treat Me Like One!” I examine how 52 white college students talk about their parents and their self-identification as adults. I find that student talk of parental validation and invalidation is associated with divergent assessments of their parental relationship overall and also different views of the self. I investigate differences associated with both participant gender and parent gender, showing that families continue to reproduce gender during college, favoring sons’ adult identify formation over daughters.’ Together, these complementary studies demonstrate ways that family continues to matter during college. I draw disparate literatures which shed light on commonly overlooked processes underpinning inequalities during college. By challenging dominant assumptions about college and family life, this dissertation demonstrates ways in which diverse and unequal manifestations of “the college experience” are rooted in family life.


Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.