Transferring ambitions: families negotiating opportunity consumption
Bowman, Cara E.
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In this dissertation, I ask what types of family negotiations occur among college-bound students and their parents as they navigate the college preparation process. Through in-depth interviews with sixty-five upper, upper-middle, middle, and lower-middle-class parents and children I explore the mechanisms that are activated in the competitive pursuit of college admission. While much research focuses on the influence of the school context, I ask students and their parents about the ways that college preparations are discussed and handled at home, focusing on their approaches to activity participation, finances, and college choices. This project investigates how various forms of what Bourdieu terms capital – cultural, economic, and social – are relayed between parents and children. I find three general orientations to college preparation, which I term strategic, natural and compliant. These approaches are shaped not only by past and present class dispositions, but also by families’ expectations for the future, which consequently transfer capital in different ways. While strategizers openly engage in activities that they hope will help their chances of admission, compliers face a moral conflict between their belief in meritocracy and the demands of the process, and naturalizers try not to explicitly associate specific activity choices with college preparation. I argue that the naturalizers, who shy away from outwardly instrumental participation instead emphasizing character development, hold the highest amounts of cultural capital, which is correspondingly rewarded by elite educational institutions. These orientations filter through respondents’ approaches to finances and choosing a college. Reflecting the tenets of their orientations, I find that some families talk about paying for college as a gift, others as a down payment, a duty, or an incentive. When faced with choosing which colleges to apply to and attend, the orientations help to explain the ways that social class resources and dispositions not only impact the extent to which families face uncertainty, but also their understandings of how to manage it. This study emphasizes that the meaning-making that occurs through the college preparation process powerfully shapes and is shaped by social class sensibilities, revealing taken-for-granted mechanisms in the reproduction of inequality.