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Approaching and Attending College: Anthropological and Ethnographic Accounts

by Jill Peterson Koyama - 2007


This review article draws on the growing body of literature at the interfaces of anthropology and education, as well as other educational studies outside anthropology that have relevance to social and cultural frames.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study:

Drawing together and analyzing anthropological and ethnographic studies, conducted during the last two decades, this review highlights the theoretical, methodological, and analytical patterns that have defined anthropological approaches to studying education.


The studies, in the aggregate, tell us a great deal about how students negotiate schooling to create academic identifications, find and construct networks rich in social and cultural capital, and experience a sense of belonging. Conversely, students who are marginalized, constrained, or have limited access to school contexts—through institutionalized practices, policies, and ideologies—are far more likely to disengage academically, to exert their agency, to “resist” school, and to forgo college attendance. What also becomes increasingly clear in regards to college preparation and access is that the experiences of students and their families vary greatly, depending on the social, cultural, political, and historical contexts within which youth’s college choices are shaped. As well, the studies reveal that the factors that impact college persistence and completion parallel those found to influence pre-college schooling.


This review of anthropological studies tell us much less about the actual college experiences of racial/ethnic minority and poor students and the author calls for further scholarship in this area.

This review essay situates anthropological and ethnographic studies squarely within educational dialogues and debates, by presenting existing knowledge and examining the ways in which this scholarship informs (and does not inform) our knowledge about the processes of getting to and attending college. Like all reviews and syntheses of work produced in an ongoing and expanding field of inquiry, the review essay is incomplete—open to expansion of existing scholarship in anthropology and also to new scholarly interdisciplinary work. It is also selective with regards to the reviewer’s personal interests and foci of the reviewed studies. Much of the chosen work resonates with my sociocultural perspective. More importantly, the reviewed scholarship reflects the abundance of relevant studies on college preparation in high school while, in contrast, pointing to the limited studies on college transitions and college attendance. In the aggregate, the reviewed work is representative of the historical influences and theoretical development in applied anthropology during the last two decades, as well as current research and scholarship in anthropology and US education. Specifically, the scholarship draws one’s attention to the shift in anthropological thought and inquiry from cultural difference and cultural reproduction to cultural production with regard to education and schooling.

The review draws most heavily from the growing body of literature at the interface of anthropology and education, and also includes other educational studies outside of anthropology that have relevance to social and cultural frames. Interdisciplinary work—materials that address the intersections or overlap of other fields with education and anthropology—are also included. Research conducted by scholars primarily identified with anthropology comprise what might be considered the core of the review, but studies produced by other social scientists with lesser affiliations to anthropology are also included if they are relevant to the topic, inform particular anthropological perspectives, use ethnographic methods, or in a few instances, are cited repeatedly in anthropological pieces essential to the review. For scholars who produced multiple pieces of work with overlapping material, I chose to include only the most comprehensive and salient pieces.

And again, while the scholarship likely represents my own particular inclinations and

interests, the pieces are characteristic of the anthropological methods which define an anthropological approach. The scholarship presented in this body of work represents an enormous quantity of fieldwork, and equally important, a great amount of analysis, often comparative in nature. Unless noted in the individual annotation, each empirical piece includes a theoretical perspective, a minimum of six months’ worth of participant-observation (often much longer in immersed conditions) at the fieldsite(s), a triangulation of data (increasingly quantitative and qualitative), and a discussion that links the study particulars to the broader historical-political, economic, social and cultural frameworks. The number of focal subjects or units of analysis varies dramatically—from the interactions in one classroom, to a graduating class, and more widely, to an entire school or community. Of those interpretive studies that provide micro-level qualitative analysis of interactions within schools and classrooms, I chose to include only studies that are either situated within larger ethnographic studies or make explicit macro-level linkages to social, political, and economic constraints and frames. Overall, the scholarship, while diverse, is widely accepted as thorough and often referred to by multiple scholars in the field of anthropology and education—and also across disciplines in educational research.


Anthropological and ethnographic scholarship, in general, attends to broad sociocultural contexts to explore the interactions between social actors and social structures. Holistic and comparative by design, anthropological research, at its best, provides a platform of integrative ideas, theories, models and concepts about transitions to college. It not only reveals but challenges the ideology or culturally based meaning of social constructions, such as merit, that currently serve as the rationale and leverage for maintaining an advantage for students from socioeconomically privileged groups. Anthropological perspectives allow researchers to disaggregate constructions, such as merit, to also examine the actual interactions between students and schools.

Ethnographic research is concerned with how students experience their social circumstances and relations in and with schools. Varenne & McDermott (1998) express the importance of this focus: “Individuals must be the units of concern and justice, but they are misleading units of analysis and reform. The greater our concern with individuals, the greater must be our efforts to document carefully the social conditions in which they must express themselves” (p. 145). As Varenne and McDermott detail in their work, schools, where students spend much of their time engaging in various interactions, are likely more important to students’ academic experiences than the particular traits students bring with them to schools. Similarly, Moll (2004) employs the term persona to describe how students experience schooling, “to capture [the] subjective experience”—to convey (in English) the projection of an identity within a particular context as ongoing social and cultural work, and (in Spanish) the development of a particular subjectivity, who the person is becoming” (p. 128). It is the personas in social relations to others, to school contexts—in interaction with the social milieu that deem anthropological attention.

Ethnographers of schools situate the sociocultural process of learning within considerations of racial, ethnic, class, and gender stratifications and inequalities. They study how “educational messages are differently distributed” and the multiple ways in which educational systems in the United States “prepare students for unequal futures based on class, race, or gender” (Weis, 1988, pp. 2–3). In their work, most scholars grapple with multiple tensions in education by addressing the connections between culture, society, and learning.

Anthropological studies of college preparation and transitions to college are no exceptions. They too represent inquiries into broader schooling experiences rather then examinations of singular dimensions of college transitions. These studies interrogate the ways that social inequalities are maintained through schools, while simultaneously exploring how students and their families struggle against, in some cases “resist,” the constraints of schooling to produce, rather than reproduce, some sort of cultural phenomenon. Much of what anthropology has to tell us about transitions to college is how students negotiate schooling to create academic identifications, access and construct networks rich in social and cultural capital, and experience a sense of belonging. It tells us about how students and their families secure funding for college—and how, in various and multiple ways, family members get involved in or are excluded from college-going processes.


The role of families has long been a topic of interest, if not concern, to schoolteachers and administrators, policy-makers, and politicians—and continues to be, for good reason, of utmost interest to educational researchers. The recently released report conducted by the University of California’s All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (Oakes, 2003) reveals that students whose parents had college degrees were two to three times more likely to be enrolled in high schools that foster a “college-going” school culture, while students who would be the first in their families to attend college were not getting the academic support they needed.

Previous anthropological studies have focused on the cultural and social “mismatches” or differences between home and school, but work within the past two decades has broadened to look at a diversity of parental and familial expectations, aspirations, and practices that influence students’ high school persistence. Numerous studies (Bank, Biddle, & Slayings, 1990; Gibson 1988, 1998; Lee, 1997; Mehan, Hubbard, & Villanueva, 1994; Phelan, Davidson, & Cao, 1991, Phelan, Davidson, & Yu, 1998; Tierney, 2002, and Tierney & Hagedorn, 2002) have challenged the theories of cultural difference and cultural reproduction to look more broadly at home-school connections and specifically at how students navigate the borders between their multiple worlds, including schools. Increasingly, anthropologists examine the role of the family in students’ schooling with regards to agency and issues of social and cultural capital.

Scholars (Delgado-Gaitan 1988, 1990; Diaz Soto, 1997; Guthrie, 1985; Romo & Falbo, 1996; Suarez-Orozco, 1987; and Valdés, 1996) have found that minority families have high aspirations for their children and challenge the stereotypes often attributed to Latino families’ lack of participation in schools. However, the work of these researchers also demonstrates how “low income and minority parents frequently lack the cultural capital—knowledge of how the system works, and social capital—access to important social networks—that play such an important role for middle-class White and Asian parents in supporting their children’s academic achievement” (Gándara, 2002, p. 92). Thus, while minority families value education and have educational aspirations similar to those of White and Asian families, they are either limited in the access to resources or access them in ways that are not legitimized by the educational system. This in turn, anthropologists argue, diminishes the educational attainment of their children.

To better understand the roles of minority families, Knight, Norton, Bentley, and Dixon (2004) move away from traditional “stories” of parental involvement—parents who volunteer with the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) or assist in the homerooms—to illuminate the value of a diversity of family practices and beliefs that impact students’ access to and participation in college. They explore what resources and support—including family relations—the working-class and poor Latina/o and Black students are able to access in their social networks. They focus on “entry points,” particular perspectives, roles, and discourses that in some ways enhance or support the process of working-class and poor youth attending college. The importance of these multiple entry points, according to the authors, is that they attest to the various pathways to college, many outside or “counter” to the traditional middle-class, mainstream roads that are privileged by school systems. Like Knight’s counterstories, Oakes, Rogers, Lipton, and Morrel (2002) offer a “countervailing ideology of merit” (p. 114)—one in which students from low-income and minority backgrounds are encouraged to examine their life experiences not as deficits, but as assets. The significance of these “counter” strategies becomes illuminated in studies that examine the processes through which students integrate their “home” cultures and individual experiences into social networks that are rich in cultural and social capital.


Current ethnographic work that considers social capital, “those connections to individuals and to networks that can provide access to resources and forms of support that facilitate the accomplishment of goals” (Stanton-Salazar, 2004, p. 18), attends to academic achievement, school engagement, and family-school involvement—all factors that impact the transitions to college.1 This research suggests that social capital is transmitted from middle-class Anglo adults and peers to working-class and minority students. For example, Mehan, Villanueva, Hubbard, and Lintz (1996), in their analysis of Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), a program that provides students from minority or working-class backgrounds with educational and social supports, attribute the benefits derived by the low-status students to their “resource”-ful relations with their middle-class peers. Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch (1995) also find that among working-class students of Mexican descent, those with the greatest English proficiency and highest educational expectations had a greater proportion of non-Mexican-origin peers, and Newman and Newman (1999) present similar findings on African-American students in a Young Scholars Program.

However, new research also examines ways in which relationships among working-class and minority students can serve as “peer social capital.” Stanton-Salazar, in both his most recent ethnographic (2001) and theoretical (2004) pieces, delineates a compelling argument for recognizing the existence and importance of peer social capital. Informed by Stanton-Salazar, Gibson, Bejínez, Hidalgo, and Rolón (2004), in their ethnographic examination of peer relations in a Migrant Student Association (MSA), find that migrant students of Mexican descent can broker social capital through their relations with one another and with their interactions with the MSA staff.  Because key social relationships occur within a stratified school system, the authors argue that it is imperative for schools to construct ways in which low-income minority students can gain access to these relationships and offer the MSA as one example of a school-sponsored and institutionally organized peer group that supports school participation and achievement.

Similarly, while cultural capital—the institutionalized or widely shared high-status cultural signals such as beliefs, attitudes, preferences, knowledge, and behaviors—that have frequently been used for social and cultural exclusions, have also been shown to create inclusion. For instance, Yonezawa, Jones, and Mehan (2002) treat social contexts as fluid sites where interaction helps facilitate the accumulation, development, and exchange of many kinds of cultural and social capital.  Relations between teachers and students are thus viewed as potential exchanges of cultural capital. These scholars, like other researchers (Gándara & Bial, 1999; Hagedorn & Tierney, 2002), argue that cultural capital must be redistributed toward students who have been poorly served by social structures, including schools, to encourage high school graduation and college attendance.

Similar instances of constructing and accessing networks rich in cultural and social capital have also been documented by others (Achor & Morales, 1990; Gándara, 1999; Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2003). Stanton-Salazar and Spina draw upon a large study investigating the social networks and help-seeking practices of Mexican-descent youth. They show how students’ retention and completion of high school are increased when they access nonfamily mentors and role models. At the college level, Achor and Morales (1990) point to the “strategies of resistance” of one hundred Chicanos who hold doctorate degrees and argue that their ability to access faculty mentors and family support propelled their success. Like Achor and Morales (1990), Gándara (1995) examines the educational experiences of Chicanos who became highly successful, doctoral-degree-holding professionals. Remarkably, she finds that thirty percent of them were tracked into vocational and educational tracks, despite their excellent grades and achievement scores. With the support of family members and other key adults, these students are able to overcome tracking and other social, cultural, and economic constraints institutionalized within their colleges.


Overall, the reported experiences of most students and out-of-school youth from underrepresented populations seem to show a pattern of less connectedness to school social networks and systems—of isolation, segregation, and institutionalized marginalization. Scholars have addressed these patterns with middle school, high school, and college students and also with youth who do not earn a high school diploma or who do not attend college. In their study of programs for out-of-school youth, Horvat and Davis (2004) find that high program expectations coupled with caring from staff create a sense of belonging that promotes both student satisfaction and success.  These researchers show that although the program participants bring very serious and often multiple life challenges—including abuse, chemical dependency, mental illness, and family instability—to the program, all students report that they benefit from their participation and increased connectedness to fellow participants and the program staff.

As described in the work by Berger (2000), Bennett and Okinaka (1990), and Tierney (1992), many college students remain marginalized throughout their schooling experiences. In Bennett and Okinaka’s study of Indiana University undergraduates, they link the sense of marginalization for ethnic minorities with high dropout rates. Importantly, their data reveals that for Hispanic and White undergraduates, the two issues—marginalization and attrition—are closely related; those least satisfied and most marginalized drop out of school. Among Asian and Black students, the issues are not correlated. In their fourth year on campus, they feel less satisfied and more marginalized than their peers that previously left the university. Overall, first-year students who participate in at least one aspect of their new college communities fair better. These findings are supported by Nora (2002), who finds that “significant involvement and satisfaction with relationships have been found to predict persistence” (p. 69).

The studies on not-belonging and marginalization at the high-school level closely parallel those conducted in colleges. Fine, Weis, and Powell (1997) argue for the importance of safe and familiar places of belonging in schools. This argument is well-supported by the emerging literature that suggests a strong relationship between feeling connected or belonging in schools and academic achievement. For instance, Valenzuela (1999), in her ethnographic examination of -Mexican-American youth, focuses on the experiences of students who feel uncared for by teachers and school staff—and she articulates the devastation this causes for the students who feel no sense of belonging.

Many scholars (Brittain, 2002; Conchas 2001; Deyhle & Margonis, 1995; Ferguson 2000; Fine, 1991, 1994; Fine & Weis, 2003; Harklau 1994; Hoffman, 2002; McDonough, 1997; Mehan, Hubbard, & Villanueva, 1994; Ogbu, 2003; Olsen, 1997; Schultz, 1996; Sutton & Levinson, 2001; Trueba 1989; and Trueba & Bartolome, 2000) have also alerted us to the role of the school, through various practices, in co-constructing and maintaining positions of marginality. Of particular concern is the practice of tracking students—of separating them during instruction by achievement, ability, or language proficiency. Oakes (1985) argues that tracking limits schools’ attempts to be either equitable or excellent, and Page (1987) suggests that teachers’ perceptions of students serve as social constructions to justify curricular decisions that do not attend to the particular needs of students. Rather, these decisions create conditions that reproduce themselves—and deny most lower-tracked students the opportunities to higher education.  

Through her ethnographic account of students and dropouts of one Manhattan high school, Fine (1991) examines high school exclusion and “the (re)production of unequal outcomes” for both African-American and Latina/o youth of low income. Looking at institutional networks of young Navajo women, Deyhle and Margonis (1995) find that schools clearly belongs to the “patriarchal, city-based, and Anglo” domain, and that school teachers and staff expect the Navajo women to assimilate to middle-class individualism, an orientation that would marginalize them in their own reservation communities. Loutzenheiser (2002) explores the disconnection of female students to their high schools and finds their schools unable and unwilling to consider the complexities of the students’ identity in relation to their education.

As reported both by Gibson, Bejínez, Hidalgo, and Rólon (2004) and Raley (2004), some students find safe, familiar, and stable places of belonging. In Gibson and her associates’ ethnographic examination of a migrant student club, club membership and participation provide students of Mexican descent with a strong sense of belonging and increased academic engagement. In Raley’s study of a small multiethnic high school, “peer-relations-like-family” are central to students’ sense of school as a place of safety and belonging. He argues that peer relations, across ethnicity, language, religion, and socioeconomic status, are made possible by the safety and familiarity of place and positively influence the experiences of the students, all of whom attend college.

Some students who are marginalized construct their own spaces of belonging. Drawing on a longitudinal study of immigrant students in America, Brittain (2002) shows how students of Mexican and Chinese descent create and interact in “transnational space” in American schools. She suggests that students who are able to create a greater sense of belonging in these spaces increase their school engagement, and improve their academic achievement and college preparation. In contrast, Deyhle (1986) analyzes breakdancing in her study of interactions and social stratifications between Ute, Navajo, and Anglo students, their communities and their high school. She suggests that breakdancers, as a social group, construct a group identity, a sense of belonging, and achieve some sort of success denied them in their academic studies. However, Deyhle points out that this position limits their access to higher education. Similarly, Vigil (2004) draws upon three decades of research to demonstrate how Latina/o gang members create belonging through their shared “multiple marginality” and street socialization that are perceived as oppositional to schooling. He urges educators and policy-makers to draw upon or “co-opt” gang values and collective solidarity rather than focus on “breaking up” the members.

Other ethnic/racial minority youth adopt a strategy of “accommodation and acculturation without assimilation” (Gibson 1987, 1988) to both create a sense of belonging and engage academically. In her two-year ethnographic study of the home-school linkages within Punjabi Sikhs from northwest India, Gibson (1988) demonstrates how the immigrants appear to value academic learning in the majority culture as a set of skills that add to, rather than replace, their separate cultural and ethnic identities. This too, seems to be the case for the Black students in the ethnographic study by Hemmings (1996), in which high-achieving Black students in two high schools do not downplay the importance of schooling nor develop an oppositional race identity as did the Black students previously studied by Fordham and Ogbu (1986), who believed that being engaged with school was “acting White.” Rather, Hemmings’ students negotiate identity conflicts and construct themselves as “model” students, as “Black persons,” and as “other selves.” According to Hemmings, some of the students’ mutually reinforcing identity structures inspire them to attend college.

Drawing upon case studies of high school students, Davidson (1996) explores the relationship between ethnic/racial identity (presentations of the self) and academic achievement. She, along with other scholars (Perry, 2002; Quiroz, 2001; Roberts, 2001; Rymes, 2001; Weis & Fine, 2000; Worthman, Murillo, & Hamann, 2002; and Yon, 2000) redirect us to the important ways in which school participates in the ongoing process of (re)creating identities. Holland and Lave (2001) support Davidson’s findings, theorizing that identities are formed in practice, in participation with others, and they emphasize that identity and culture are part of the same complex historical and social processes. Levinson (2001), in his ethnography of school and student culture in a Mexican school, also suggests that students’ identity formations are responses to the practices of the school and larger political and historical frames.


Increasingly, ethnographic studies address the complexities and nuances of students’ agency, and in some cases, resistance. Scholars like Levinson, Foley, and Holland (1996) and Ortner (2003) are broadening their inquiry of students’ responses to school to focus on the “cultural production” of students and its ability to shed light on human agency within the constraints of social and cultural structures. For example, in her ethnographic study of a Washington, DC high school, Fordham (1996) demonstrates that African-American students’ resistance is complex, sometimes representing both conformity and avoidance. Drawing heavily upon the cultural ecology approach of Ogbu (1978, 1987), she points to the way in which the school’s meritocracy relies on individual achievement that is at odds with the students’ fictive kinship system. Likewise, Hurd (2004), in his ethnographic account of the complex peer-mediated politics in an ELD class, notes that “the acting-out and teasing behaviors in the ELD classes are meaningful social practices and performances” that maintain important bonds of both solidarity and sociality with other Mexican-descent classmates while simultaneously struggling against what appears acceptable, sayable, or doable in an ELD classroom.

Scholars (Deyhle & Margonis, 1995; Holland & Eisenhart, 1988; McCarty, 2002; Pottinger, 1989; and Weis, 1985, 1990) also show how students exert their agency in ways that ultimately place them in a cycle of social reproduction. Exploring the experiences of Black students in an urban community college in a northeastern city in the United States, Weis (1985) finds that Black students forge a collective culture that helps ensure their own “superexploitation,” essentially directing them “back to their ghettos.” In a complementary study of White, working-class students, Weis (1990) focuses on the struggles of these Anglo students as they “reproduce” themselves in a society economically different from that of previous generations.

Much of the recent work on agency and resistance highlights the complex and often hidden gendered differences in schooling—and also challenges the application of traditional theories of resistance to analyze the experiences of female students. Hubbard (1999) finds that while all the African-American students in an AVID program understand the importance of attending college, the females realize more concretely that college degrees will increase their economic opportunities and expand their life choices. In contrast, Holland and Eisenhart (1988), in their ethnographic study of women’s responses to college, find that in many cases, but by different routes, the female students develop marginal views of themselves. The women often engage in romantic relationships with men who became more central to their self-definition than their schooling or careers—reproducing gendered patterns despite class and race difference.

Fordham (1993), drawing from her ethnographic study of academic success in an urban high school, examines how African-American females resist the normalized definition of femaleness—namely White, middle-class, “nothingness.” Fordham suggests that “loudness” becomes a metaphor for the resistance and being “loud” allows the female students to achieve some level of academic “success,” but also socially marginalizes them. In this study, academic achievement, which in traditional theories of resistance would be seen as conformist, is actually resistance. Likewise, Cammarota (2004) presents a study in which he explores the variability of Latina/o students’ subjectivities and shows how intergenerational family narratives of resistance serve as motivational and inspirational resources for students. He argues for the need of researchers to attend to the complexity in students’ agency and suggests that schools increase the participation of family and community members to increase student retention and “success.”

A relatively new line of inquiry into students’ agency in response to schooling presents studies that explore the institutional roles of schools in “not learning” and in “failing.” In his ethnography of three Midwestern high schools, Cusick (1983) points out that in order to limit racial conflict at the schools, teachers provide a non-engaging curriculum that rewards students not for participating—for “not learning,”—but for getting along with each other. Cusick argues that this practice is the direct result of contradictions between the egalitarian ideal and the realities of American public schools. Other scholars turn their attention to the ways in which students are perceived and constructed as “non-learners.” Eckert (1989) focuses on the polarization between the class-based social categories, the “Jocks” and the “Burnouts,” to examine the hegemonic opposition between the two categories. She concludes that the Burnouts, through their treatment by the school, learn “how not to learn” and how to be marginalized, while the Jocks learn quite the opposite. Both Hurd (2004) and Everhart (1983) present ethnographies that highlight the ways in which students disrupt class and pay little or no attention to lessons. Everhart considers the behavior of junior high school students who “act out” in class as a rational resistance to an oppressive form of state capitalism—the authoritarian school. Hurd provides a complex account of students’ acting-out and teasing in ELD classes that maintain a collective culture of “not learning” and warns us that formal classroom-based learning is only one of many forms of learning. He challenges researchers and educators to examine students’ behaviors within the larger salient contexts of students’ lives, including family and community settings and experiences.

McDermott (1987, 1997) and Varenne and McDermott (1998) further challenge explanations of not-learning and minority school failure and argue that “failure” is constructed as an institutionalized event that is a culturally necessary part of American schooling. Both “success” and “failure,” they suggest, are inherent to schooling. Through their ethnographic and ethno-methodological studies of social interactions, the authors show how success and failure are arbitrary and limiting constructs that do not reflect what goes on in schools. They reveal that students who have restricted access to particular kinds of school contexts—students labeled “at risk,” “disabled,” or “limited English proficient”—are, through the practices and policies of schools, at risk of coming to behave in accordance with such labels. And finally, McDermott (1997) notes that students who “appear as if they are not learning are not not learning,” but rather are learning in relation to the ongoing organization and relations of school (p. 120).


Even when students from underrepresented populations negotiate college and university systems that do not necessarily accommodate, let alone attend, to their cultural and social needs, financial constraints continue to largely influence their access to and participation in higher education. Gándara (1993, 1995, and 2002) demonstrates that the cost of getting a college education extends well beyond the price of tuition and books. Students from poor families must also consider their earning power and loss of income to their families while they attend college rather than work.

And yet, getting a college education is an increasing necessity rather than a luxury in the post-industrial economy of the United States. Thus, students from poor and working-class, often minority, families are finding it necessary to obtain college degrees in order to negotiate the socioeconomic changes. Fine and Weis (1998) present an urban ethnography in which they delve into race-relations, social stratification, and “White privilege” to reveal the few economic and educational opportunities in the lives of those who live in poverty. They find that the scarcity of high-paying industrial jobs leads many working-class males to higher education in attempts to save their fleeting social status.

However, in his exploration of the relationship between money and access to college for minority and low-income students, Orfield (1992) finds that overall enrollment of poor and working-class students is decreasing due to a trend in funding, in which financial aid is being awarded to middle-class students for whom it is not essential. Further, traditional financial approaches to increasing college access have focused narrowly on the issues of college enrollment, without sufficient attention to the steps required to be academically, socially, and culturally prepared to enter and succeed in college. Swail and Perna (2002) remind us that achieving the goal of increasing college success for underrepresented students is a complex task.


While much of the literature on persistence has been informed either by a psychological perspective or a program evaluation framework, ethnographic studies that examine the more nuanced factors in retention and persistence have been conducted (Hu & St. John, 2001). For example, Terenzini, Rendon, Upcraft, Millar, Allison, and Gregg (1994) examine the processes through which college students become or fail to become members of the academic and social communities on their campuses. In general, they find that retention depends not only on academic preparation and predictive measurements, but also on institutional accommodations and support for new students making transitions. Gándara and Lopez (1998) draw upon interviews with nearly fifty Mexican-American college students who excelled in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). They find that the SAT scores are not, as often reported, good predictors for the completion of degrees, high college grade point averages, or graduate school attendance. Pottinger (1989) also finds a “disjunction” to higher education where American Indian students with equivalent academic backgrounds are much less likely to graduate than Anglo students with similar preparation.

Nora and Rendon (1988) challenge not only the use of academic indicators, but also the reliance on community colleges to retain minority students. They explore community colleges, “the capstone to higher education for ethnic minorities and students from low social class origins” and suggest that the community colleges have evolved as the primary access for students of underrepresented populations. However, the authors suggest that attending community college limits students’ educational choices. They argue that college choices tend to be delimited not only by academic preparation, but also by race and social class—and point to the less-than-satisfactory rates of Hispanic students’ transfers to four-year institutions. These findings are supported by the work of Hossler and colleagues (Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999; Hossler & Stage, 1992), who examine the social, economic, and educational factors that influence college-going decisions. Scholars (Bailey, Jacobs, & Jenkins, 2004; Belfield & Levin, 2002), have recently begun to examine the possible weakening of curriculum and learning through the outsourcing of instruction at the community college level. Thus community colleges can temporarily increase attendance and retention of minority students in higher education, but ultimately may hinder persistence.  


Anthropological and ethnographic studies present varied and multiple theoretical and methodological approaches to the factors that influence students’ schooling experiences, both in high school and in college. The strength in this body of anthropological and ethnographic literature seems to hinge upon its ability to provide rich explorations into the everyday lives of students, mostly those who are negotiating the pre-college domain of high school, but also some who are indeed literally transitioning to college. Much of the scholarship situates the schooling experiences of the students and their interactions with schools into the broader social, cultural, political, economic, and historical frameworks.

Much of what anthropology has to tell us about approaching and attending college comes from studies of schooling experiences in high schools. We see that students negotiate schooling to create academic identifications, find and construct networks rich in social and cultural capital, and experience a sense of belonging. Students who have or gain access to capital-rich settings—particularly enhancement programs, institutionally sponsored clubs, or selective curricular tracks—fare better academically. They remain in school longer, take the necessary requirements for college entrance, experience higher academic achievement, and enter college in greater numbers. Similarly, students who are able to create an academic and social identity that does not constrain their schooling possibilities and who find or construct places of belonging also reduce their risks of dropping out of high school and attending college. Conversely, students who are marginalized, constrained, or have limited access to school contexts—through institutionalized practices, policies, and ideologies—are far more likely to disengage academically, to “resist” schooling, and to forgo college attendance.  

Further, we are beginning not only to see how female and male students negotiate educational systems differently, but also how we, as researchers, must begin to explore areas, such as romantic aspirations and intimate relationships, to reveal gendered schooling experiences. Importantly, some female students, especially from traditionally underrepresented ethnic/racial groups, construct academic identities that do not fall within our recognized set of “successful” strategies. We are just opening our inquiry to learn more about how gendered patterns of high school academic engagement intersect with ethnic/racial and class-associated phenomena—and how all of this relates to college experiences.

We continue to learn new information about the impact of family involvement on college preparation and pre-college processes. Numerous studies have shown that minority families have high aspirations for their children and many parents participate in and support their youth’s schooling in ways that are dissimilar from those of middle-class White families. Further, scholars find that family members who support schooling, but are themselves not able to provide the necessary cultural and social capital, can be instrumental in their children’s ability to locate and access such capital. And, what becomes increasingly clear in regards to college preparation and access is that the experiences of students and their families vary greatly, depending on the social, cultural, political, and historical contexts within which youth’s college choices are shaped.

We also see that in general, the findings, which reveal factors that impact college persistence and completion, parallel those found to influence pre-college schooling. The studies suggest that performance indicators usually cited as predictive of college “success” are less reliable for minority and low-class students.  Retention for students from underrepresented populations depends not only on academic preparation and predictive measures, but also on institutional accommodations and support for new students making transitions. Financing a college degree—a cost that extends well beyond tuition—continues to be paramount to students, especially those who have responsibilities to bring an income to the family household. Thus, students from low-income households are less likely to attend college than upper-income students with similar academic records. To increase college access we must move beyond traditional financial approaches that have focused narrowly on the issues of college enrollment, without sufficient attention to the multiple factors required to be academically, socially, and culturally prepared to enter and succeed in college.

Unfortunately, anthropological studies tell us much less about the actual college experiences of racial/ethnic minority and poor students (Harklau, 1998).  Important studies (Bailey & Morest, 2004; Dougherty, 1994) examine the conflicting and changing roles of community colleges, but few ethnographic studies (Moffat, 1989; Levin & Cureton, 1998) have illuminated what happens to students in college. Over fifteen years ago, Moffat (1989) told us what college students at Rutgers “really” talk, think, and care about in their dorms and across campus and more recently, Levin and Cureton (1998) show us what social and private concerns motivate college students in the 1990s. Yet, we are still left with large gaps in our knowledge about students’ times in higher education. Similarly, we are still lacking in our understanding of what is possible for those students who transition from college, either at graduation or prior to completion, to work situations. So, while we have a growing body of literature that attends to near-college schooling experiences, we need to address our lack of understanding about the actual process of being in college. Doing so will provide us with a more complete picture of the multiple college-going processes.

Scholars must maintain their interests in increasing minority participation in higher education and continue studying the experiences of students who both attend and do not attend college. However, our increased “understanding” and our new explanations of variability in minority students’ academic achievement and engagement must not satisfy us. We must continue to refocus on what actually happens in the classrooms, the hallways, the admissions offices—and the social milieu and cultural contexts in which these settings gain purchase. And we must persist in interrogating the institutionalized practices and policies that construct the sorting tools, such as tracking by ability and standardized testing, which continue to produce stratification and inequity.2

And finally, as educational anthropologists and ethnographers of educational experiences, we must utilize our work to inform educational programs and policies—and to provide entry points into political debates and public conversations. Unfortunately, as Sleeter (2004) points out, the language of power is increasingly one of standardized achievement scores and the U.S. Department of Education now steers educators toward directives that attend not to the students’ whole schooling experiences, but to strengthening students’ achievement scores. She argues: “It is particularly ironic that federal legislation currently directs educators away from ethnography—away from insights based on ethnographic studies and away from use of qualitative inquiry as a tool to better understand local contexts and communities” (p. 135). I hope this review essay address this lacuna by demonstrating how anthropological and ethnographic studies can inform educational dialogues.

I extend my thanks to the members of the Transitions to College Committee composed by Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and especially to Barbara Schneider for her support and Margaret A. Gibson for her unfailing mentorship. Funding, as well as ongoing professional support, was generously provided by Social Science Research Council. Thanks are given to Sheri Ranis and Laura Stein previously at SSRC. As well, I thank the Milbank Fellowship Program for awarding me a fellowship that allowed me to explore multiple bodies of literature in anthropology and education. Special thanks are given to Lesley Bartlett, my fellowship sponsor.


1 To examine the stratification in schools, anthropological research has extended beyond what I consider the potential dangers of eliciting the constructs of social and cultural capital to talk about students’ schooling experiences. First, most of the work conducted in the past twenty years has moved away from situating cultural and social capital within individuals, and instead explores how institutions and systems “hold” capital. For a review of theories of social capital, see Stanton-Salazar, 2004.

2 African American and Latino students now constitute the majority—52 percent of the student population—in the 500 largest school districts in the country. These same students comprise 61 percent of the 100 largest school districts (Moll, 2004, p. 126). And yet in the aggregate, with other racial/ethnic minority and low-income students, these students continue to experience unequal patterns of school attainment. Nationwide in 1998, 93.6 percent of Caucasian students between the ages of 25 and 29 had received a high school diploma or certificate compared to 88.2 percent of African Americans, and 62.8 percent of Latinos (Gándara, 2002). Still, despite the discrepancies among ethnic groups, over the past three decades there has been a considerable increase in academic attainment for minority students. In 1971, only 58.8 percent of Blacks and 48.3 percent of Latinos held a high school diploma or equivalent, while 81.7 percent of Whites had achieved this educational goal.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 10, 2007, p. 2301-2323
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12568, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:49:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Jill Koyama
    Teachers College, Columbia University
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    JILL PETERSON KOYAMA is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In her recent work, she focused on language policy appropriation across multiple educational contexts, in particular, in American high schools with “English language learners.” Her dissertation research explores the ways in which, culturally, failure is made to matter.
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