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Readings on Equal Education

reviewed by Erin Horvat - January 31, 2014

coverTitle: Readings on Equal Education
Author(s): Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, Phillip J. Bowman and Edward P. St. John, (eds.)
Publisher: AMS Press,
ISBN: 0404102263, Pages: 314, Year: 2013
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Understanding the barriers impeding access to postsecondary education has occupied the time of many higher education researchers over the last 30 years.  As access to higher education expanded and postsecondary education or training became a prerequisite for living wage employment, understanding the hows and whys behind unequal patterns of access has grown in importance.  In recent years attention has turned to developing effective mechanisms for addressing these barriers and increasing access among underserved populations.  Readings on Equal Education, edited by Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, Phillip J. Bowman and Edward P. St. John, is situated directly within this higher education literature.  It provides the reader with an understanding of the barriers faced by underrepresented students as well as evaluations of efforts aimed directly at reducing these barriers.  The volume, part of the series from AMS Press on Expanding Postsecondary Opportunity for Underrepresented Students, provides an introduction to a new construct useful for understanding postsecondary access (Academic Capital Formation).  Contributors to the volume also assess significant efforts across the United States to address the impediments to access faced by students and families.    

The volume offers eleven chapters.  These chapters are organized into three sections: Theory Building, Models of Successful Practice, and Conclusions.  The first section, Theory Building, contains chapters aimed at putting St. John, Hu and Fischer’s concept of Academic Capital Formation (ACF) to work.  They examine particular patterns of access and barriers faced by different populations. They address challenges faced by urban youth and citywide efforts to increase access, Black and Latino male students, Latino/as and Hmong populations.  This section also includes a chapter on success among doctoral students with HBCU undergraduate degrees.  The second section, Models of Successful Practice, examines programmatic efforts to increase postsecondary access including the College for Every Student program, the Washington State Achievers Program, The Carolina Covenant, and transfer students in STEM fields in Michigan.  The book concludes with a chapter by one of the editors that offers insights based on the ACF framework and suggests directions for further research.

The book is centered on the notion of Academic Capital Formation.  This framework draws on various sociological constructs including social reproduction theory, social capital theory and human capital theory.  The resulting framework provides a lens through which the authors understand postsecondary access for the populations they have examined.  At times, the lens provided by ACF illuminates barriers that have gone overlooked such as the critical role of networking and trust.  ACF also provides a mechanism and language that allows researchers to consider the interactions of the myriad factors affecting postsecondary access, which is particularly well articulated in the chapter by Perna and Hadinger on urban youth.  However, there is little discussion or critique of other theoretical formulations that have been used to understand postsecondary access.  Nor do most of the authors elaborate on the theoretical or empirical advantage provided by this approach.  This lack of critique and positioning in relation to other theoretical approaches diminishes the contribution the authors can make.  Readers may be left wondering what specific contribution or greater understanding is achieved by viewing barriers to access through this framework.

One of the strengths of the volume is the way in which the contributors centrally position populations traditionally underserved by postsecondary institutions.  Rather than comparing their research subjects to “majority” populations, these chapters use ACF to position Black and Latino men or Hmong students, for example, at the center of their analysis.  Thus, we are provided with rich and varied portraits of these populations and the particular struggles they have faced as they pursue postsecondary education.

The second section of the book will be useful to policy makers or those interested in the value of recent efforts aimed at increasing postsecondary access among underserved populations.  The chapters provide valuable information on these programs and their effectiveness, highlighting the need for policymakers to address the myriad barriers faced by traditionally underrepresented students.  The chapters on the Washington State Achievers Program and the Carolina Covenant are particularly sophisticated and useful in their analysis and recommendations.  

Given the importance of family background in ACF, I was surprised that the authors do not draw more heavily on the extensive literature from outside of the higher education field that has firmly established the important role of family background and social class in determining life chances.  Works such as Unequal Childhoods (Lareau, 2003), Ain’t No Makin’ It (MacLeod, 2008) and Subtractive Schooling (Valenzuela, 1999) have firmly established the critical role of family background in home-school relations as well as educational aspirations and attainment.  Drawing on this largely sociological literature and situating the findings of these chapters in relation to it would provide the reader with a more holistic and complete understanding of the challenges to addressing postsecondary access for underserved populations.

Lastly, access to education is a critical part of the American Dream.  As many others have argued, continued inequality, particularly in access to a quality education threatens to undermine this dream.  While the authors of this volume are no doubt aware of this, the central concept undergirding the research presented here (ACF) locates the problem of access to postsecondary education within the families and individuals desiring access rather than in the structures that perpetuate the reproduction of historical patterns of access and the concomitant outcomes described here.  Certainly, understanding the barriers faced by students and families is useful.  However, the lack of attention in the volume to the structural conditions that produce and reproduce the barriers is noteworthy.    

Readings on Unequal Education shines a light on the challenges of postsecondary access for several populations of interest.  It also provides a very useful evaluative snapshot of key programs aimed at increasing access among underserved populations.  There is much to like here.  Policymakers and students of higher education will find the volume useful and informative.  


Lareau, A. (2011). Unequal Childhoods, 2nd Edition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

MacLeod, J. (2009). Ain’t No Makin’ It, 3rd Edition.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive Schooling. Albany NY: SUNY Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 31, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17399, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:58:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Erin Horvat
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    ERIN HORVAT is Associate Professor of Urban Education at Temple University in Philadelphia PA. As a sociologist of education drawing extensively on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, her research aims to illustrate how educational institutions create and reproduce inequality throughout the educational pipeline. As an educational activist and practitioner she has worked for many years with YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School to help provide an access to educational opportunity for out of school youth who want to turn their lives around. A qualitative research specialist, she recently published The Beginnerís Guide to Doing Qualitative Research.
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