No Ticket, No Entry: Cultural Capital in College Degree Attainment

golden-ticketI am all a dither because today, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce released their report entitled “Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege”.

As an educational scholar I get excited when I see these reports for multiple reasons: a) it’s a text I can use in many of my courses; b) national scale data is hard to come by; c) the quality of the research done is fairly solid given the origin of the work; d) this contributes to, and may advance, discourse on equity in education.

The executive summary is clearly written and organized. It begins with a very clear thesis: “In theory, the education system is colorblind; but, in fact, it is racially polarized and exacerbates the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.” I can dig it. They follow this assertion with clear data points, some of which I share here:

  • Between 1995 and 2009, postsecondary enrollment rose 107% for Hispanics, 73% for African Americans and 15% for Whites
    • However, 82% of new white freshman in that time frame enrolled at one of the top 468 most selective four-year colleges, compared to 13% of Hispanics and 9% of African Americans.
      • 72% of Hispanics and 68% of African Americans enrolled in open-access two and four year colleges

Let me stop you here: These enrollment trends are not a function of college readiness. In fact, the report states that even though high scoring Hispanic and African American students attend college at the same rates as whites, 30% of African American students attend community college compared to 22% of academically comparable whites.

Aaaaand once these students get to college, whites are more likely to complete college. After controlling for prior achievement, 51% of Hispanics and 49% of African Americans drop out of college compared to 30% of whites.


Here is where I diverge from the report whose primary purpose is to relay long-term life outcomes associated with disparate college enrollment patterns. That story is not new. What I want to discuss is why all students (but especially Hispanic and African American students) who attend the top 468 selective institutions are nearly twice as likely to graduate and have a greater likelihood of attending graduate school as those who attend open-access institutions.

I argue that our conversation should be about college completion, not enrollment. And in that conversation we must acknowledge the critical role cultural capital plays in degree attainment.

Let’s review some more data:

  • Among high scoring Hispanics and African Americans at the top 468 institutions, 73% of them complete a degree compared to 40% of Hispanic and African Americans at open-access schools.
    • Of the 73% of Hispanic and African Americans who complete a degree, 33% of them attend graduate school, compared to 23% who attended an open-access institution.

There are obvious explanations for the different success rates between selective and open-access colleges. The report points to greater financial resources as measured by per pupil spending. The 82 most selective colleges spend almost 5 times as much on instruction as open-access schools. In dollars this is $27,900 compared to $6000 per pupil per year. The top 468 schools fall between spending an average of $13,400 per pupil.

I do not disagree. Yes, financial capital is essential when we talk about quality of education. Money buys students more qualified professors (who demand higher pay), extensive technological support, smaller classes, more opportunities for enhanced learning (study abroad, community-based learning, participation in research) and higher quality food (linked to cognitive functioning), among other assets.

But focusing solely on economic differences masks what I believe to be the true driver of stratification in higher education: access to cultural capital.

Our postsecondary institutions have been and continue to be structured around the white male norm. White men still dominate academia, occupying higher positions and receiving higher pay than equally qualified women. This discrimination is furthered when one happens to be a woman and of color. Women of color occupy the lowest position in the Academy, marginally outranked by men of color. The curriculum—especially at elite schools—is driven by what the power culture deems important. We glorify pre-med, pre-law, and business under traditional academic models, and encourage exploration of many fields under the liberal arts model. Both of these are direct representations of white middle and upper class expectations. To be successful at the collegiate level on a pre-professional track, one must first have taken the requisite courses in high school and possess the self-regulatory learning skills and content knowledge to be competitive in such courses. For many white middle and upper class students, this is a given. Of course you’ve taken pre-calculus in high school. Of course you know how to write. Of course you have a context in which to place and a schema through which to make sense of course content. I don’t need to give you any of that.

Similar scenarios play out at elite liberal arts colleges. There is little guidance about what courses to take beyond making sure students satisfy distributive requirements. There are no vocational tracks because the idea is that you are qualified and informed enough to construct that path yourself. You have a long term vision of who you want to become and you have all the supports and information you need to get there. So four years from now you will walk across that stage empowered and prepared to pursue your chosen career. Congratulations!

What I know to be true from my own experiences as a student at elite institutions (one liberal arts and one more traditional), as a faculty member at a selective liberal arts institution, and as a scholar whose work centers on the function of social factors in educational attainment, is that students from low income and racial minority groups begin their college career without the cultural capital needed for success in such an environment.

How do I know? It’s obvious. These are students who have never written a paper in any other format than a five paragraph essay. Who have never taken an AP or IB course because their district didn’t offer them. Who have been given step-by-step instructions on every assignment because their teachers did not trust their decision-making. Who have never left their state (or in some cases their city) so are unaware of how different people in different settings live. Who have never had choice in their education because choice implies a school with academic options. Who don’t understand the necessary courses to take if you want to become a veterinarian because you do not know any veterinarians—or anyone who went to graduate school for that matter. Who don’t know that summers should be spent networking at internships instead of working for the necessary pay to continue to your education. Who don’t have a safety net of a job, space at home, and financial support from parents and family members in case you make a mistake and all of this was for naught.

Given all of these barriers, one would think that students of color at the top 468 selective institutions would graduate at lower rates than their counterparts at open-access schools. This is what they want us to believe. This is what they sell us. They paint a picture of an environment where our students can’t succeed. They tell us our babies will feel ‘out of place’ and ‘lost’ and would be more ‘comfortable’ at a less rigorous school. Or they dissuade us with hefty price tags, never mentioning that elite schools carry higher endowments which enable them to provide more need-based aid than do open-access schools. And this aid is often in the form of scholarship, not loans. They do not tell us that our children, who are qualified to attend an Ivy League school, could afford to do so even if their family income is less than $75,000 per year because now, at many of the Ivies, these students can go tuition-free. They hesitate to mention that President Obama has vastly increased access to Pell Grant funds for families whose income is less than $30,000 per year. No. They don’t want us to know any of that. Because if we knew, if we enrolled in the top 468 schools, we would graduate at much higher rates and consequently occupy a higher social position in society. What a threat that would be to their happy existence of privilege and power.

Students of color who enroll in selective schools do succeed. And they do so despite a lack of explicit instructional and social supports. They succeed at higher rates than their peers in open-access schools because they have access to cultural capital their peers do not. No matter how you spin it, the elite schools are elite because they function in an insular bubble where cultural capital begets more capital begetting power. Students of color enrolled at such schools are privy to a whole new world, a new way of being. They are given access to information that has been kept close to white chests throughout time. Slowly, they can become a fringe member of the most esteemed society in our country: white society.

Don’t get me wrong: you are indeed a fringe member as your skin will never give you full entry. But we don’t need full entry. We don’t need to be white or wealthy to succeed in life. We just need to be informed. We need to know the game and the players. We need to recognize and accept the fact that cultural capital is our ticket in.

And once we are in…think of what we can do.


Single and Fabulous!(?) Unmarried in Academia


I am at a crossroads. Only a couple of years into my career I am faced with the very real, very scary decision of prioritizing professional or personal.

I’ve read many articles and blogs about this issue and unsurprisingly the discourse is centered on women and the choices we are forced to make between our professional and personal identities. So often this conversation is about if married women should change their last name or when women should have children in relation to the tenure process. While these conversations should undoubtedly be had at every institution, I am left wondering where single (i.e., not in a relationship) women fit in this conversation. I hear Carrie Bradshaw whispering in my ear…Single and Fabulous! Single and Fabulous?

I moved across the country to take what turned out to be my dream job. Everything people describe in their ideal employment situation is very true for me: I am able to design my own courses, prioritize teaching over research (this is a personal preference), get to know my students very well because of the small class (and College) size, form strong bonds with colleagues across departments, have my contributions be respected and valued, shape the trajectory of the department and College, have institutional support for attending conferences and funding research, be compensated fairly for my work. I get up every day and look forward to engaging with students, designing new courses, writing manuscripts. I feel excited, challenged and fulfilled.

Then I go home. To an empty house (my dog not withstanding).

I know at this juncture many people will say “you gotta get out there and meet people!” I agree. So I did.

In two years I’ve joined three meet-up groups with different foci. I’ve been a member of all the major online dating websites (the free and very much not free ones). I even hired a matchmaker. I go to movies, restaurants, bars, the mall, the library, coffee shops, the dog park all with hopes of having a casual conversation and making a new friend.

To no avail. This is not because people do not have conversations with me. They do. Then the conversation ends and I watch them leave the establishment hand in hand with their spouse/partner. The same is true for colleagues at work. I have wonderful colleagues with whom I laugh and have great conversations. The problem arises when I—a single woman with no children—want to hang out after 5pm. They can’t. They have children to pick up, spouses with whom to spend time, family visiting, chores to accomplish.

I am one of 173 faculty members at my institution. Of those 173, I would liberally guess that 25 have never been married (If I were to put money on it, I would lower that number to 12). But let’s say it’s 25. Of those 25, I am the only one under 40 years old.

It is quite the dilemma. The harsh reality is that I am in a different phase of life than a 40 year old/married/parent. While I enjoy spending time with them (and sometimes their spouses and children), the things I want to do, the conversations I want to have are hard to come by. You can only handle being a third wheel for so long.

So I find myself spending more time alone than I ever have in life. Even during the haze of graduate school I managed to make connections with people and have a social life. The sad reality is that no matter how much I love my job and my colleagues, this existence is not sustainable.

But do I sacrifice a ‘perfect’ professional situation and go on the job market with hopes of employment in a hipper city with more young professionals….OR do I count my blessings that I HAVE a job (as so many PhDs are outside of the tenure track circle) and keep the faith that I will eventually (seemingly magically) find a man who is unmarried, the appropriate age, wants to have children, is not intimidated by my degree/profession, is interested in me, and with whom I have a connection?

When do I say when? Is it worth the risk?

I guess I echo Carrie Bradshaw in asking can we have it all?

Selling Up vs Selling Out: Narratives of Success in the Black Community

“Punk ass punk!”

“Mark ass busta!”

Wait, wait. Let me rewind. About 6 weeks ago (yes, it’s taken me that long to be calm enough to write about it) me and a friend who was leaving the institution decided to have a farewell night out on the town. We ran into two colleagues at the first place we went and had a great time eating and chatting. Around 8:30pmish we all leave and they go home while my friend and I head to a second location.

She and I had been to this place many times before. In fact, I know the owner and his wife fairly well so we didn’t think twice about going there. We arrive and see it’s crowded but notice that our usual booth is open. We sit. She goes to the bar and orders us drinks. We drink. We talk. We laugh. Great times are being had by all!

…7 minutes later I look up and there are two black guys standing by our table. One is probably 5’8, 170lbs and is clearly drunk. He is accompanied by his ‘cousin’ (they’d just met 3 days ago) who was 6’8 and closer to 300lbs. The shorter one—we shall call him Tom—is drunkenly asking us (read: slurredly shouting) if he should name his first son Armani. We do the typical ‘we don’t want to be bothered with drunk men’ thing and laugh, briefly answer, and stop making eye contact.

To no avail. They sit in our booth uninvited. Tom sits beside my friend and Big Foot sits beside me (I was shocked he could fit in the booth). It’s loud in the bar so I can’t hear what my friend and Tom are talking about, but Tom is the quintessential drunk with his hands waving around, leaning in, shouting, and getting angry for no reason when he misunderstands/mishears things she says. Meanwhile, Big Foot has asked me my name. Thus marks the beginning of the devolution into what I like to call the You’re a Sell-Out discourse.

Big Foot: That’s a Hebrew name? It’s bad ju ju to have a Hebrew name and not be Jewish. You know…they say they suffered. Okay, so like a million Jews got burned up. Who cares? That’s nothing.

Me: O_O wow…you really just said that.

Big Foot: I don’t want to talk about that. So what do you do?

Me: I’m a professor. We both are.

Big Foot: *rolls eyes* y’all are those Condoleezza Rice loving b****es. You probably have posters of her all in your house.

Me: (he is talking over me so I went unheard): You don’t even know me. What the hell are you talking about?

Big Foot: I know how black women with PhDs are. Y’all think yall run the world but you don’t. It will ALWAYS be a man’s world.

Big Foot (to Tom): Yo man! Don’t let her (my friend) talk to you crazy. She’s one of those sell-out black women who thinks cause she got an education she’s better than someone. You say what you want! Do whatever you want to do! Forget her!

Now, you can imagine how the rest of that scene played out. My friend manages to not let her rage get the best of her and can speak to them without picking up an empty bottle and breaking it over Big Foot’s head. I commend her because I could not do the same. I asked Big Foot to move so I could get out of the booth and we could leave. He refused. He refused 3 more times. Eventually, they get up and we get our tab to pay. Tom has been apologizing profusely on behalf of his ‘cousin’ but we are so offended and enraged we have no choice but to leave. When I stand up, Big Foot has the nerve to say “oh damn, and you’re tall too. I think tall women are sexy”.

WHAT?!?!?! You just called me a sell-out b****. You accused me of thinking I’m better than people. You told me it would never be my world. Most of all, you tried to align me with Condoleezza Rice.

But despite all of that, you still find me attractive. More importantly, you think your compliment is sufficient to override the disrespect you’ve delivered in the past 15 minutes. Hell, you don’t even know you were being disrespectful because like many in the black community, you’ve bought into the discourse of correlating life success with selling out.

Now, I am a firm believer in ‘lifting as we climb’. I don’t believe that once you are successful you should never look back. I know that my success is because of the contribution and influence of many others in my life.

But does having a PhD make me a sell-out to my community? Or is it because I attended an Ivy League institution? Or that my grad school was the top in its field? Or because I now teach at a predominately white college? Or because I live downtown? These can’t be the reasons because he never asked about any of that.

These things are all facts, yes. But they speak nothing about how I work in low income Hispanic and black schools. How I go to families’ homes to help them figure out how to best meet the educational needs of their children. Or how I coach a step team at a mixed race high school in another school district. Or of the mentorship I give friends, parents, and children in the community.

He knew nothing about me but fecrabsinabarrellt justified in condemning my success based on the color of my skin and the letters behind my name. Are those things an oxymoron? Can one not have brown skin and possess an advanced degree? Or is it that I can’t do those things and still be a ‘legitimate’ member of the black community?

When will we stop internalizing the perspectives of the white narrative and begin to write our own story? When will we recognize the difference between selling up and selling out?