Cultural Capital: 2 Ways to Remove Barriers to College




Even if money were no object, low-income students would still not end up at colleges that fit their talents and potential.

Of course, ” a mind is a terrible thing to waste’; but is equally sad to think that the deep sacrifices that low-income parents make to give their children a better life are going under-rewarded.

I ran across two different takes on the missing “cultural capital” that keeps young people from getting the education that can maximize their opportunities and contributions to society.


#1:  Sherpas Needed! One report by James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University describes three cultural tasks in the college application process that are especially hard for low -income students:

  • Seeing the pros and cons of the various college options
  • Identifying which of their college options match their own interests and needs
  • Knowing which attributes colleges value in admissions and how to present themselves accordingly

Young people from communities where parents have not gone to college are at a major disadvantage in these situations.  Lack of knowledge and experience, traditions and assumptions among their friends and their families often lead low-income youth to make choices that don’t give them the best opportunities:  Examples include:

  • considering only schools where people they know have gone,
  • not preparing properly for interviews,
  • avoiding schools that are far away from home.

Kids who stay in those comfort zones and act only on local knowledge fail to get the best education available to them.   And underplaying their hand when applying to college can have a major impact on the rest of their lives.

The report suggests that, like Sherpas for novice mountaineers, school staff can act as “cultural capital translators” to help students and their families acquire subtle, taken-for-granted information and skills that colleges require, and help them overcome these barriers to college.

#2:  Socioeconomic integration

A different solution to the same overall issue is recommended in an excellent article by  Benjamin Landy.  Benjamin cites quantitative research by others that once again makes the point that income is not the key barrier to an education and social mobility:   “a child’s likelihood of attending college today (a practical requirement for entry into the middle class) is determined more by their parents’ education level than family income.”

Interestingly, neither income at home nor school budget seem to be the key drivers of educational mobility.

“As an example, Kahlenberg points to research he supervised ( in Montgomery County, Maryland, where low-income students and their families were randomly assigned to public housing and schools in affluent neighborhoods, controlling for the issue of self-selection by motivated parents. Surrounded by middle-class peers, the study found the relocated students “performed much higher in math than comparable students assigned to higher-poverty neighborhoods and schools—even though the latter spent $2,000 more per pupil.”

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To reduce the gap in academic success, high school graduation, college attendance and in going for the best education for which each child qualifies, Mr. Landy makes the case for more of this kind of socioeconomic integration.

The idea isn’t theoretical.  Apparently, voluntary socioeconomic integration programs in 80 school districts are already creating the conditions in which low-income youth are surrounded by the expectations and culturally-engrained knowledge and influences that can put them on the same level as their higher income peers when it comes to preparing for college and going through the application  process.

How We Can Help

This is all good news.  It gives us all many new ways to support the development of deserving low-income families and teens.  Here are a few actions we can all take:

  • Support policy initiatives that focus on educational mobility.
  • Encourage local schools to tune in to and address cultural capital gaps that hinder teens applying to college now.
  • Volunteer to do college selection/ application coaching.
  • Pass along the good articles by the authors above.
  • Ask low-income parents we know who have teens about their plans for applying to college.  Give them the recognition they deserve for their sacrifices to make those education dreams come true.  Give them one or two pieces of advice that might make all the difference in their lives.
  • Other?


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