June 03, 2024

Becoming a College Student: Understanding Life Chances and Social Inequality

Karen sternheimer 72523By Karen Sternheimer

If you are or were once a student attending college, have you ever thought about how that happened?

The short answer might be you studied and worked hard in high school, and maybe built up your resume to include application-worthy items for admission (Leadership! Philanthropy! Involvement in sports/arts/extracurriculars!). These are, of course, important individual achievements.But there is another aspect to thinking about how you got to college: understanding how social structure shapes your life chances.

Life chances is a concept developed by Max Weber to describe how one’s circumstances at birth may shape opportunities that they have access to. Note that these are chances, not certainties, and that while some people might enjoy certain advantages at birth, how those advantages manifest in college attendance are shaped by any one of a number of factors, both individual and structural.

Social structure is a pattern of arrangements within larger social institutions that are shaped by things that might seem invisible unless we look for them. Social structure includes public policies, for instance, that impact our educational system and shape how the system operates.

How can we apply these concepts to a few hypothetical circumstances?

Scenario #1: Kendra attends a selective private university. She attended a well-funded public high school with helpful teachers and guidance counselors. Her parents both earned bachelor’s degrees and are in professions that pay well, although the family is not wealthy.

To attend this university, Kendra receives scholarships, takes out student loans, and works part time on campus thanks to her work study award in her financial aid package. While her parents contribute to help pay her tuition and room and board, the costs of attending and living on campus would equal about half of the family’s annual income, and Kendra has two younger siblings at home.

Scenario #2: Jake attends a selective private university. He attended a private prep school with children of wealthy origins. His family works in finance, and while not as wealthy as some of his peers, he does not need financial aid or a job to attend college. He participates in a study abroad program his junior year, and during the summer between his junior and senior year he completes an unpaid internship in a company where one of his close friends has a parent who is an executive at the company.

Scenario #3: Lizbeth is a first-generation college student attending a selective private university. She attended an underfunded public school but enrolled in an enrichment program targeting high-achieving students in her state. This meant she had to attend classes on most Saturdays, but she was able to work on her writing and math skills to make her more competitive in the college admissions process than some of her peers in her underperforming public school where many of the teachers had only emergency teaching credentials. She earns a full scholarship, thanks to the university’s scholarship program for students from families earning less than $50,000 a year. This scholarship includes housing and meals during the academic year, but Lizbeth needs to work whenever possible to pay for books, a computer that she financed, and for food during breaks.

Each of these students has different life chances based on their families of origin. And while they might be attending the same university, they will likely have vastly different experiences and probably different friends. Having to work might take away from being able to participate in extracurricular activities—especially if they cost money—which could limit future opportunities or just ways to have fun, meet people, and reduce stress.

Being able to study abroad, do an internship, and participate in organizations helps to cultivate social and cultural capital, resources that can be used to produce wealth and upward mobility. Even students in the same major, taking the same classes, who both work hard to excel in school can find themselves in vastly different places after graduation depending on their family of origin.

As Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton describe in their book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, family wealth shapes whether or not someone has student loans, can afford to live in a big city with more career opportunities, and even whether they can network socially with peers at the campus party scene. Ironically, they found that wealthy students who don’t do particularly well in school still can wind up in more lucrative careers after due to their connections.

Structural factors—such as policy decisions and the ways in which social institutions like education operate—shape life chances and opportunities. Many of these structural factors might play a role in your ability to become a college student:

Coeducational policies: women were not always admitted to colleges and universities. In fact, Ivy League colleges—arguably the most elite schools in the United States, did not formally admit women until the late twentieth century. (Women attended the so-called “Seven Sisters” schools affiliated with the Ivy League.

Financial aid: The first student loan program began in 1958, and became more widely available when the federal government began backing them in the 1970s.

Scholarship programs: If you receive a merit-based scholarship, an athletic scholarship, or benefit from the federal Work Study program, you can thank the institutions that created these programs for your college attendance. Yes, you have to work for all three of these awards by definition, but their existence is an example of the way in which policies at the federal, state, and institutional level help students attend college. Other organizations also offer awards; my high school offered scholarships, and I even won a small scholarship from my mother’s bridge league.

These are just a few of the hidden factors that help people become college students. What other structural factors shape life chances? Our opportunities during and after our educational experiences?

Comments

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Lets go ahead .

It effectively illustrates the varying experiences of students from different backgrounds and highlights the importance of understanding the systemic factors that shape educational opportunities. Karen Sternheimer's detailed scenarios and reference to Max Weber's concept of life chances offer a compelling analysis of social inequality in higher education. This piece is both informative and thought-provoking, making it a valuable read for anyone interested in the intersection of education and social stratification.

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