|dc.description.abstract||Completing college is associated with tremendous benefits in American society (Carnevale et al., 2015). Yet, while college access has expanded dramatically over the past half-century, graduation rates remain frustratingly unequal by class, race, and parental education (Cahalan et al., 2019). Much of this disparity is due to factors that occur before students step on campus, however, scholars have also begun to focus on processes during college that lead to divergent outcomes (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Stevens et al., 2008). However, most of the research on the within-college processes that shape inequality has left out the most common type of four-year college experience: public regional comprehensive universities (RCUs). Understanding what shapes inequality within RCUs is essential because these institutions educate the majority of all low-income college students and students of color (Bowen et al., 2009). In theory, this should make RCUs better at serving these populations, but unequal graduation rates reveal that is usually not the case.
In this dissertation, I use a series of in-depth interviews with 49 students to study the dynamics shaping the first year of college at one RCU, pseudonymously called Middletown State University (MSU). I find that MSU has an institutional culture of regional affordability that supports the inclusion of white, working-class, first-generation students. While this creates a context where first-generation students persist at the same rate as continuing-generation students, it has two key limitations. First, because the institution fails to recognize important differences among first-generation students, the context of regional affordability does not support the inclusion of low-income students of color. Second, even though working-class white students feel included, middle-class students are still more likely to experience greater benefits from college. Ultimately, this dissertation finds that regional universities like MSU are uniquely positioned to support less-advantaged students, but unless they recognize and include all the educational, racial, and class differences that students bring with them to college, RCUs will still reproduce inequality on campus. This research expands our understanding of how the intersectionality of students’ backgrounds shapes inequality, and it highlights the need for better understanding of the institutional cultures of regional comprehensive universities.||