Leveraging privilege: The college process and the mobilization of social advantage in an affluent public high school
Cipollone, Kristin Noelle
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This dissertation research examines the individual and class practices engaged by a segment of the professional middle class to navigate the college process. For the middle and upper middle class, the college application process, and the build up to it, has increasingly become a family endeavor (Lareau & Weininger, 2008; Issacs, 2011), one that often begins before a child is even born. Following one year of data collected through 60 interviews, observations, and document analyses, I argue that focal families (students and parents) are using the college admissions process as a way to gain long-term social and economic privilege. Specifically, parents, with the help of schools (elementary through high school), facilitate the creation and subsequent adoption of privileged identities—in this case, identities as selective college goers—as well as mobilize the capital and knowledge at their disposal in order to try to ensure that children occupy the top ranks of the academic hierarchy at school. Such a vantage point, they hope, will position children favorably for selective college admission and subsequently, later in life (in terms of economic security). How families enact their capital and resources, however, is highly dependent upon context—social, cultural, economic, and geographic. While the focal families meet the definition of "affluent," what this means and what this looks like is relative and context specific, a point that is seemingly lost in most of the literature that discusses privilege. I argue that these gradations in privilege, particularly as related to college positioning and outcomes, can be explained using Bourdieu's analytic tools of habitus, field, and capital. While focal students do well in the college application process, gaining entrée to highly selective colleges, they fail to access the apex of the most selective tier (i.e., Ivy League schools) at similar rates to students in affluent communities elsewhere in the United States (see Devine, 2004; Khan, 2011; Robbins, 2006).