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Divergent Paths to College: Race, Class, and Inequality in High Schools

reviewed by Christin DePouw - May 17, 2019

coverTitle: Divergent Paths to College: Race, Class, and Inequality in High Schools
Author(s): Megan M. Holland
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, Piscataway
ISBN: 0813590256, Pages: 216, Year: 2019
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College access is a key factor in students’ chances for economic and social mobility in today’s society. Within neoliberal educational systems that often separate analysis of student choices from historical, social, or economic context, individual student behaviors may be interpreted through the lens of meritocracy rather than as indicators of complex institutional, social, political, and economic inequities. A strength of Divergent Paths to College: Race, Class, and Inequality in High Schools by Megan M. Holland is Holland’s deft balance between the complex individual choices and experiences of students and the systemic processes that tend to reproduce social and economic inequality in students’ pathways to college.

Holland conducted a two-year study at two high schools, Evanstown and Park City, which have similar school cultures regarding college attendance. Both schools are situated in well-to-do suburban communities, are highly rated in their state, and have student-counselor ratios below the state average. Both school populations are relatively diverse racially and economically. Most data collected for the study consisted of interviews with 89 students, but the study also included two years of field work, survey data, and follow-up interviews with 11 students four years after their graduation from high school. The depth and complexity of data is a real strength of the study, as it provides insight into students’ specific experiences with parents, counselors, teachers, and peers while consistently locating those experiences within institutional and social context.

The study interweaves students’ interview data with other data related to higher education access to argue the critical importance of social capital in the college application process and the role that schools as organizational brokers play in solidifying students’ prior advantages or disadvantages. Importantly, the goal of the study “is not to make causal arguments regarding these differentials [in student outcomes], but to show how students may get on different college pathways and what those look like” (p. 137). Holland argues that differential access to social capital influences students’ postsecondary paths by affecting their cultural knowledge about the college application process. The high school brokered students’ access to social capital in three ways: access to peers, to counselors, and to college admissions officers via college events (p. 137). The complex and nuanced interview data provided important insight into how these different areas impacted students’ pathways to postsecondary education.

Many white, economically privileged students at both Evanstown and Park City had access to cultural knowledge about the college application process through their families and community relationships. Their parents were often college-educated and had the economic resources necessary for additional supports, such as paid college admission help if needed. Some students’ social capital was so deeply ubiquitous that they did not even recognize their knowledge of the college application process as cultural or as tied to their socioeconomic advantages; instead, some assumed that knowledge of the college application process was common sense or universal. Academic tracking and school counselors aligned well with the social capital and cultural knowledge that these students already possessed; the students understood how to advocate for themselves with counselors and their families were persistent in pushing the school to place their children in the most academically advanced tracks, sometimes contrary to teacher recommendations. White, economically privileged students with cultural knowledge of the college application process also disproportionately benefited from early admissions and college representative visits early in the school year.

Other students, often with lower socioeconomic status and disproportionately students of color, were not able to leverage social capital or cultural knowledge in the same way. Both schools, for instance, engaged in tracking that resulted in racially and economically segregated academic experiences and opportunities. In both schools, tracking reinforced racialized understandings of academic achievement and ability, and created identity dilemmas for students of color who were academically capable of performing well in upper-level courses but who were reluctant to bear the social costs of being racially isolated in predominantly white classes. Counselors in both schools often relied on student initiative to obtain information, which disadvantaged students who did not understand enough about the college application process to develop specific questions.

The lack of trust that many students experienced in their relationships with counselors was also a significant barrier in information dissemination; students of color and low-income students often perceived their counselors as trying to lower their expectations and often avoided or did not believe their counselor as a result. Finally, both schools had cultures that focused heavily on college attendance and put a great deal of pressure on all students to apply. However, contact with college representatives often differed in utility and quality depending on the social capital and cultural knowledge that students had in relation to the college application process. Students without a great deal of cultural knowledge about the process were particularly vulnerable to educational marketing by institutions that were sometimes less competitive and more expensive than other options for which they were eligible.

By focusing on students’ emotional, social, and economic responses to their secondary experiences and postsecondary aspirations, Holland provides insight into factors that influence students’ decision-making without losing sight of the broader context in which those decisions are made. By balancing different levels of concern within the college application process, Holland humanizes students and their families engaged in this high-stakes process and reveals the influences that may not appear institutional but are nevertheless deeply embedded within the cultures and processes of the two schools in the study. Divergent Paths to College is a thoughtful and valuable resource for education professionals and families. As a teacher educator, I found the study to be insightful and exciting, and recommend it highly.  




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 17, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22798, Date Accessed: 1/21/2022 10:27:19 PM

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About the Author
  • Christin DePouw
    University of Wisconsin-Green Bay
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTIN DEPOUW is Associate Professor in the Professional Program in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Her research focuses on race, inequity, and higher education in predominantly white institutions (PWIs). Her recent publications include “Critical Race Theory and Hmong American Education” in the Hmong Studies Journal (2018).
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