For many people, from the first-year students traipsing around campus in search of the correct lecture hall to the senior faculty preparing to teach courses for the nth time, the beginning of the academic year tends to be frantic and exciting time. This year, when back-to-school coincides with a heated Presidential race, education and politics are bound to mix. President Obama has made access to higher education – measured primarily by greater access to grants and student loans while trying to rein in the costs of for-profit education – an important talking point on recent campaign stops. Republican candidate Mitt Romney, for his part, seeks greater involvement of the private sector in K-12 and higher education, as well as the student loan business (for a brief recap, see this article from Reuters).
In an election where the economy is front and center, it is not surprising that the costs of higher education dominate the conversation. Yes, the costs of a college education create barriers for students, but expenses are far from the only issue.
Both Obama and Romney ostensibly seek to provide more opportunities for students to attend college and achieve upward social mobility. But sociologists have long understood that our education system does far better at reproducing stable inequality than social mobility. The reasons for this have less to do with economics than with social and cultural capital. Social and cultural capital, both concepts developed by Pierre Bourdieu, refer to resources one has at their disposal in social life. The former consists of group memberships, social networks, and relationships, while the latter refers to the less tangible and symbolic – specialized knowledge, skills, and behaviors that are useful in a given situation.
Social and cultural have a broad impact on educational attainment. Brooks (2008) notes that cultural capital plays a role in students’ decisions about whether to attend college and where to do so. For example, many middle class students and their families assume, by default, that attending college is typical after high school, an assumption that is often absent in lower-class families. Similarly, institutions are stratified by status and prestige, and students with college-educated parents from a middle-class (or elite) background fare better in the admissions process. Put (very) simply, students whose social backgrounds provide them with knowledge about how the high education system works have greater access and more choices when it comes to going to college. The mechanisms are as varied as they are subtle, and for a more thorough analysis I recommend Brooks’ article, which concludes quite appropriately by noting: “social and cultural capital and habitus have been central to the attempts of many sociologists, across the world, to explain ongoing inequalities within [higher education] systems that are, in many cases, officially trying to ‘widen access’ and increase the social diversity of their student populations.”
This is also the explanation for why throwing money at the problem will not work. For all the talk of increasing the money available for students – whether through government grants or private loans – there is little public discussion about the social factors that underlie the stratification in our education system. Access and mobility will come not from an increased ability to pay for an education, but from the ability to understand how the higher education system works and better guidance for students unfamiliar with the process. In the meanwhile, please share your thoughts below on how, if at all, this is possible. And for the students, faculty, and staff members out there, please have an excellent Fall 2012 semester!
Brooks, Rachel. 2008. “Accessing Higher Education: The Influence of Cultural and Social Capital on University Choice.” Sociology Compass 2(4):1355-1371.
Wildhagen, Tina. 2010. “Capitalizing on Culture: How Cultural Capital Shapes Educational Experiences and Outcomes.” Sociology Compass 4(7):519-531.