Unequal Playing Fields, Same Game: The College Application Process for Students at Diverse High Schools

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Unequal Playing Fields, Same Game: The College Application Process for Students at Diverse High Schools

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Title: Unequal Playing Fields, Same Game: The College Application Process for Students at Diverse High Schools
Author: Holland, Megan Marie
Citation: Holland, Megan Marie. 2013. Unequal Playing Fields, Same Game: The College Application Process for Students at Diverse High Schools. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: The "college-for-all" norm encourages all students to attend college, and while rising college ambitions point to the effectiveness of this encouragement, differences by race and income in who goes to the most selective institutions and who actually graduates from those institutions point to persistent inequalities. With few exceptions, the majority of research on college access has focused more on documenting these inequalities and less on explaining how students end up in their respective institutions. In particular, we lack in-depth examinations of how students navigate the college admissions process, which represents one of the last hurdles between students and college attendance. Considering the increasingly complex nature of college admissions, especially for the most elite schools, the application process is a key gate-keeping mechanism in the reproduction of inequality in higher education, both in terms of who attends college and whether or not they finish (vertical stratification) and what kind of school they enroll in (horizontal stratification). My dissertation delves into this process and finds that institutions such as universities and high schools tend to reinforce disadvantages by failing to adjust their messages for different student populations. All students in my study are fed high college aspirations, but not all have the same "college knowledge." When less advantaged students attempt to pursue the dominant college pathway, like they see so many of their peers successfully navigating, they meet with unrealized aspirations and college "under-matching." Though interest in under-matching and horizontal stratification in higher education is growing, we know very little about the processes that lead to these outcomes. Drawing on extensive field research at two high schools and interviews with 137 respondents, I examine the three stages of the college-choice process – aspirations, search, and choice. I examine how institutional forces, such as high school organization and culture and higher educational marketing, lead students to engage in the college application process in very different ways during each of the three stages. I argue that the first step towards understanding more about why low-income and minority students struggle to graduate college is to look at the circumstances under which they made their college choices.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:11129142
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