Date of Award

2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Sociology

First Advisor

Annette Lareau

Abstract

While many studies of college choice have focused on whether high schools have a general “college-going culture,” this dissertation considers the specific nature of college preparation and support that is conducive to elite college enrollment. This qualitative study examines the college preparation and choice process of high achieving students in two urban, selective admission public high schools where most students were from poor or working class families. Both schools had a college going-culture but neither had developed an elite college-going culture. As a result, some students did not apply to elite colleges when they were qualified. Other students did not have the opportunity to adequately prepare for elite college admissions, despite very high academic achievement.

This study relied on in depth interviews and observations. Interviews with thirty high achieving 12th grade students provide a detailed account of their course taking, college application and choice process. Interviews with fifteen teachers shed light on how they advised students about college preparation and choice. In addition, participant observation in counselors’ offices and in college recruitment sessions revealed how students learned about the landscape of higher education.

I identify three aspects of the high school experience that deterred elite college enrollment among high achieving students. First, students were unable to access high-level courses that would facilitate their access to elite colleges. Additionally, students and teachers alike were often unaware of the importance of taking high-level courses, such as calculus, for elite college admission. Second, students at both schools had minimal access to recruiters from elite colleges. Not only were recruiters from non-elite and non-selective colleges more likely to visit, they were more effective in addressing students’ concerns about cost, transportation and standard of living in college. Finally, many teachers and students doubted that an elite college education was desirable. Teachers had limited familiarity with elite colleges. Moreover, because of the concerns about student debt, teachers actively deterred students from any private institution. Overall, the study helps to explain the role high schools can play in limiting students’ opportunities to enroll in elite colleges and universities.

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