Cultural capital and first-generation college success

Dumais, Susan A.; Ward, Aaryn
Publication Year:

Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 and the Postsecondary Education Transcript Study, we assess the levels of cultural capital possessed by first-generation college students and their non-first-generation peers. Drawing from past quantitative and qualitative studies, we operationalize cultural capital both as high arts participation rewarded by those in power, and as purposeful interactions with key gatekeepers to access information and resources. In doing so, we aim to highlight the importance of both structure and human agency in cultural capital theory. We analyze the effects cultural capital has on enrollment in and persistence through a four-year postsecondary education and on undergraduate grade point averages (GPA), and determine whether cultural capital has a greater effect on non-first-generation students (the reproduction model), first-generation students (the mobility model), or neither group. We find that family cultural capital, cultural classes, and the number of ways parents helped in the college application process are all significant for four-year college enrollment, and parents’ help and students’ receiving assistance at school with their college applications are significant for graduation. No significant associations are found between the cultural capital variables and GPA. Overall, no support was found for either the reproduction or the mobility models.

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