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Geographies of Campus Inequality: Mapping the Diverse Experiences of First-Generation Students

reviewed by Bobby Steele, Lacey Quadrelli & Thalia M. Mulvihill - November 22, 2021

coverTitle: Geographies of Campus Inequality: Mapping the Diverse Experiences of First-Generation Students
Author(s): Janel E. Benson and Elizabeth M. Lee
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 0190848154, Pages: 216, Year: 2020
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Historically, the studies on first-generation college students have overwhelmingly focused on how they compare to continuing-generation students and the additional support they need to persist through graduation. More recently, however, scholars have begun to reshape the discourse in notable ways, such as critiquing the way first-generation students are named and described as a corrective to a deficit-oriented perspective. Geographies of Campus Inequality adds importantly to a growing body of literature that does not limit the use of the cultural descriptor first-generation students based only on the educational attainment of their parents or guardians. Authors Benson and Lee, as sociologists, introduce readers to the nuances of the first-generation student experience taking into consideration the intersection of various identity markers such as race, ethnicity, gender, and class. The authors use the results of a combination of interviews with 64 students and available survey data to challenge readers to explore and understand that the experiences of first-generation students are not monolithic and need expanded consideration.


In the first chapter, titled “More Than One Way to be First,” the authors define campus geographies as “smaller multidimensional niches” (p. 3) and problematize viewing first-generation students as a homogeneous group. Instead, they explore other factors such as institutional practices, social connections, and how a sense of belonging shapes student experiences. Benson and Lee use in-depth interviews and national survey data to describe what is meant by and experienced as student engagement. The authors specifically study first-generation students at selective colleges such as the academically selective, predominantly White institution with the pseudonym of “Hilltop College,” and specifically address how first-generation students organize all aspects of their lives within this type of college climate, how they selected that organizational type, and how these institutional organizations impact first-generation students as they prepare for life after college. The authors’ effective use of the construct of geographies provides an insightful framework for viewing these organizational paths as a spectrum that ranges from “work hard” to “play hard,” and in so doing offer a much richer context for understanding the identities and choices of first-generation students.


The second chapter expands the discussion, with a focus on student relationships in familial and social contexts providing readers the opportunity to consider how these influences might be enduring as students enter and make their way through college. Although first-generation and continuing-generation students are compared in this chapter, Benson and Lee justify this decision to demonstrate the impact that social class has on students at selective colleges. Furthermore, the authors avoid reinforcing a deficit-oriented discussion by moving beyond conversations of gaps and disparities.


Chapters 3 through 6 delve into the four geographies categorized as “Work Hard,” “Play Hard,” “Multisphere,” and “Disconnected.” These chapters reflect the intricacies of the first-generation experience by taking a comprehensive approach to discussing a variety of social and academic experiences such as leisure time, extracurricular activities, connections with faculty and staff, and peer relationships. Identity dimensions such as gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status are also included in the discussion to demonstrate how campus climate and culture impacts college experience. Benson and Lee focus on identity intersections to better understand the lived experiences of this population of students and to challenge readers to reflect on the role institutions have in fostering student experiences. While student choices regarding academic and extracurricular involvement play a significant role in their own lived experiences, the opportunities presented to them by their institutions through the culture and climate of campus—and all of the smaller spaces campus encompasses—certainly have an impact on these students and are important considerations in improving first-generation student persistence.

Chapters 7 and 8 conclude by providing an overall discussion reiterating that first-generation students are not a homogenous group, and they introduce the concept of cultural models of success as shapers of strategies for success. The authors call for institutional structure and support systems to be challenged and reexamined to ensure equity and accessibility for varying student experiences. Specifically, they recommend institutions start with a plan to increase recruitment and visibility among first-generation students and provide sustained attention throughout their campus experience and beyond. Campus culture and the smaller geographies students inhabit such as intersectional programming and support, services that assist students with the transition to a post-college world, as well as impactful external factors like social and national climate (or sociopolitical context) are all addressed in Chapter 8 in ways campus leaders from various institutional types can apply.

In addition to providing a thorough overview of the many facets of the first-generation experience, the authors take several other useful measures to help the reader, such as reminders of established acronyms in the text and chapter ending notes providing further context for definitions, research methods, and sources. Lastly, the appendices include summaries of the methods, data collection, and analysis, as well as tables to provide visual comprehension of the study.

A source of concern within the findings in Geographies of Campus Inequality is the lack of recency of data to be utilized in quantitative analysis. To place this in context, the data used from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NSLF) in Fall 1999 were collected prior to the events of September 11, 2001, which changed the social climate for many minorities and has had a lasting impact across a broad range of services in the United States including the higher education sector. Additionally, these data were collected before the economic crash of 2008, which impacted many families of first-generation and low-income students in much deeper ways than continuing-generation students (Aronson et al., 2015). Given the careful attention Benson and Lee have paid to the impacts of social climate and national issues on the experiences of first-generation students, it raises the question of what more might be learned from an updated quantitative database; they addressed this concern on page 186, footnote 1. It might also serve to advance the analytical possibilities of the collected data if more interpretation about the included race identifiers for the participants were offered.

Overall, Geographies of Campus Inequality is an excellent resource reviewing the intersections of first-generation students’ identities, backgrounds, and experiences, particularly within the lesser-reviewed area of selective-admission institutions. While this work focuses on selective institutions, there remains broad applicability to other types of institutions of higher education as well. The “geographies” construct is very useful in making sense of the diversity within the first-generation cohort. The care that Benson and Lee take to approach first-generation experiences from an institution-first perspective instead of a student-deficit-oriented perspective is refreshing, providing realistic and concrete recommendations that institutions may consider in their recruitment and education of first-generation and low-income students.


Aronson, P., Callahan, T., & Davis, T. (2015). The transition from college to work during the Great Recession: Employment, financial, and identity challenges. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(9), 1097–1118. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676261.2015.1020931

Benson, J. E., & Lee, E. M. (2020). Geographies of Campus Inequality: Mapping the Diverse Experiences of First-Generation Students. Oxford University Press.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23910, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:16:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Bobby Steele
    Ball State University
    E-mail Author
    BOBBY STEELE is the director of the Multicultural Center and Higher Education at Ball State University and a higher education doctoral student at Teachers College, Ball State University.
  • Lacey Quadrelli
    Ball State University
    E-mail Author
    LACEY QUADRELLI is the senior academic advisor at Oklahoma State University and a higher education doctoral student at Teachers College, Ball State University.
  • Thalia Mulvihill
    Ball State University
    E-mail Author
    THALIA M. MULVIHILL, Ph.D., is professor of higher education and social foundations at Ball State University. Her research focuses on the history & sociology of higher education with a focus on women and gender issues, qualitative research methodologies, and innovative pedagogies for graduate education. Recent book publications include: Oral History and Qualitative Methodologies: Education Research for Social Justice. (Routledge Press, 2022) and Arts-based Educational Research and Qualitative Inquiry: Walking the Path. (Routledge Press, 2020), Winner of the AESA Critics Choice 2020 Book Award and the AERA-Qualitative Research SIG Honorable Mention 2021 Book Award.
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