Social class and college choice in an independent school

Erin Purcell Hughes, University of Pennsylvania


High school graduates are seeking access to college in record numbers, and a significant percentage of those graduates are angling for admission to elite colleges. Yet, while there is clear evidence of the benefits of attending elite colleges, there is also an increasing disparity between who has access to elite colleges and who does not. This dissertation examines the college choice processes of students from different social classes who attend the same elite, independent school. It stands to reason that students on financial aid at an independent school might be able to parlay their social and educational experiences into admissions offers from elite colleges. While independent schools and elite colleges are assumed to be vehicles of social mobility, my experience as a college counselor at such a school has provided many examples of how an independent school education has further privileged the already class-privileged students more than it has the financial aid students. My anecdotal observations led me to pose the following research questions for this study: (1) How do independent school students from different social classes manage and make sense of the college choice process? (2) What are the implications of any class-based differences in the college choice process for social reproduction? Using an interpretive approach, qualitative methods, and data primarily from 46 interviews, I studied ten families (five full-pay and five financial aid) as their children negotiated the college process throughout senior year of high school. The data revealed class-based differences in the ways in which families raised their children, oriented students towards school and college, interacted with the school, and employed resources to help children in the college process. As these differences disadvantaged poorer student, these findings highlight the need to explore further the ways in which socioeconomic diversity or class differences play out in independent school settings. The findings also reveal the need for independent schools to: (1) bridge the disconnect between what the schools say and truly want to provide and what families say and truly want from the school, and (2) be open, fair, and transparent in matters of schooling and college choice.

Subject Area

School counseling|Secondary education|Individual & family studies

Recommended Citation

Hughes, Erin Purcell, "Social class and college choice in an independent school" (2008). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3309446.