How do undergraduates engage authority figures in college? Existing explanations predict class-based engagement strategies. Employing in-depth interviews with 89 undergraduates at an elite university, I show how undergraduates with disparate precollege experiences differ in their orientations toward and strategies for engaging authority figures in college. Middle-class undergraduates report being at ease in interacting with authority figures and are proactive in doing so. Undergraduates from lower-income backgrounds, however, are split. The Privileged Poor—lower-income undergraduates who attend boarding, day, and preparatory high schools—enter college with dominant forms of cultural capital akin to those of their middle-class peers, are primed to engage professors, and are proactive in doing so. By contrast, the Doubly Disadvantaged—lower-income undergraduates who remain tied to their home communities and typically distressed schools before college—enter college with less cultural capital, are more defensive when engaging authority figures in college, and tend to withdraw from them. Through documenting the heterogeneity between lower-income undergraduates, I show how static understandings of individuals’ cultural endowments derived singularly from family background homogenize the experiences of lower-income undergraduates. In so doing, I shed new light on the cultural underpinnings of education processes in higher education.
Scholars argue that lower-income undergraduates’ transition from segregated, distressed communities to college fosters heightened senses of difference and alienation in college. I call undergraduates socialized and educated in these contexts the Doubly Disadvantaged. Extant research, however, overlooks undergraduates who participate in pipeline initiatives that place lower-income students in elite boarding, day, and preparatory schools, permitting them greater exposure to wealth, whites, and privilege. I call undergraduates who travel this alternative route the Privileged Poor. This chapter investigates how differences in the Doubly Disadvantaged and Privileged Poor’s precollege experiences influence their experiences with class marginality and culture shock in college.
Existing explanations of class marginality predict similar social experiences for all lower-income undergraduates. This paper extends this literature by presenting data highlighting the cultural and social contingencies that account for differences in experiences of class marginality. The degree of cultural and social dissimilarity between one’s life before and during college helps explain variation in experiences. I contrast the experiences of two groups of lower-income, black undergraduates—the Doubly Disadvantaged and Privileged Poor. Although from comparable disadvantaged households and neighborhoods, they travel along divergent paths to college. Unlike the Doubly Disadvantaged, whose precollege experiences are localized, the Privileged Poor cross social boundaries for school. In college, the Doubly Disadvantaged report negative interactions with peers and professors and adopt isolationist strategies, while the Privileged Poor generally report positive interactions and adopt integrationist strategies. In addition to extending present conceptualizations of class marginality, this study advances our understanding of how and when class and culture matter in stratification processes in college.
While many sociological studies analyze the causes, conditions, and mechanisms perpetuating American racial inequality, the literature on how African Americans understand and explain these inequalities is less developed. Drawing on 150 interviews with middle-class and working-class African American men and women, this paper analyzes inductively how respondents define and conceptualize the most pressing obstacles facing their group when probed on this question. We find that middle- and working-class respondents alike identify the problem of racism as the most salient obstacle facing African Americans. Class differences appear with respect to what other obstacles are singled out as salient: while middle-class respondents focus on lack of racial solidarity among Blacks and economic problems (in this order), working-class respondents are more concerned with the fragility of the Black family followed by the lack of racial solidarity. This analysis discusses the relevance of considering how groups make sense of obstacles, and of racism and discrimination in particular, for the study of destigmatization and antiracist strategies of stigmatized minorities.