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Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education

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Degrees of Inequality reveals the powerful patterns of social inequality in American higher education by analyzing how the social background of students shapes nearly every facet of the college experience. Even as the most prestigious institutions claim to open their doors to students from diverse backgrounds, class disparities remain. Just two miles apart stand two institu Degrees of Inequality reveals the powerful patterns of social inequality in American higher education by analyzing how the social background of students shapes nearly every facet of the college experience. Even as the most prestigious institutions claim to open their doors to students from diverse backgrounds, class disparities remain. Just two miles apart stand two institutions that represent the stark class contrast in American higher education. Yale, an elite Ivy League university, boasts accomplished alumni, including national and world leaders in business and politics. Southern Connecticut State University graduates mostly commuter students seeking credential degrees in fields with good job prospects. Ann L. Mullen interviewed students from both universities and found that their college choices and experiences were strongly linked to social background and gender. Yale students, most having generations of family members with college degrees, are encouraged to approach their college years as an opportunity for intellectual and personal enrichment. Southern students, however, perceive a college degree as a path to a better career, and many work full- or part-time jobs to help fund their education. Moving interviews with 100 students at the two institutions highlight how American higher education reinforces the same inequities it has been aiming to transcend.


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Degrees of Inequality reveals the powerful patterns of social inequality in American higher education by analyzing how the social background of students shapes nearly every facet of the college experience. Even as the most prestigious institutions claim to open their doors to students from diverse backgrounds, class disparities remain. Just two miles apart stand two institu Degrees of Inequality reveals the powerful patterns of social inequality in American higher education by analyzing how the social background of students shapes nearly every facet of the college experience. Even as the most prestigious institutions claim to open their doors to students from diverse backgrounds, class disparities remain. Just two miles apart stand two institutions that represent the stark class contrast in American higher education. Yale, an elite Ivy League university, boasts accomplished alumni, including national and world leaders in business and politics. Southern Connecticut State University graduates mostly commuter students seeking credential degrees in fields with good job prospects. Ann L. Mullen interviewed students from both universities and found that their college choices and experiences were strongly linked to social background and gender. Yale students, most having generations of family members with college degrees, are encouraged to approach their college years as an opportunity for intellectual and personal enrichment. Southern students, however, perceive a college degree as a path to a better career, and many work full- or part-time jobs to help fund their education. Moving interviews with 100 students at the two institutions highlight how American higher education reinforces the same inequities it has been aiming to transcend.

30 review for Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education

  1. 5 out of 5

    Tressie Mcphd

    Let me start by saying that I'm not a culturalist. I tend towards conflict theories, structure and organizations. Mullen is all about Bourdieu, which is fine but knowing this difference in how I read it and how she likely wrote it might be salient if you're an egghead. If not, pay not attention. There is nothing earth shattering here but that does not mean this isn't a book worth reading. On the contrary, Mullen's greatest contribution may be in summarizing how little inequality and higher educat Let me start by saying that I'm not a culturalist. I tend towards conflict theories, structure and organizations. Mullen is all about Bourdieu, which is fine but knowing this difference in how I read it and how she likely wrote it might be salient if you're an egghead. If not, pay not attention. There is nothing earth shattering here but that does not mean this isn't a book worth reading. On the contrary, Mullen's greatest contribution may be in summarizing how little inequality and higher education has changed since the previous two major waves of sociology of highered research. Jenck's 1972 policy recommendations still make sense (progressive taxation, poverty solutions, etc.) because little about inequality in the U.S. has changed, except that it is more acute than it was when Jenck's was writing. Mullen sets out to explore what statistics about college enrollment cannot reveal: how do students at vastly different colleges make their college decisions? Mullen makes a valiant effort to do what I try to do in my own work: value individual agency while detailing structural constraints on that agency. She has an impressive data set. She got student lists from Yale and nearby Southern Connecticut State University (Southern). From these she randomly selected 50 students, stratified for gender, from both sites. She then interviewed them about their educational biographies, family background and college experiences and aspirations. What she finds is that the 5 mile distance between the two schools is light years in social distance. Yalies don't know Southern exists and Southerners don't care that Yale exists. The students at Yale think they started applying to Yale in their junior year of high school. In fact, they started going to Yale, or a similarly elite school, from the moment they were born into a social and economic environment that made preparation for elite colleges a practical possibility. Similarly, the Southerners' college choices were limited for them by the same social forces, even if the students construe those limitations as personal choices. Again, none of this is remarkably new but the qualitative approach lends much to the trend in soc of highered to go for big data and qualitative analysis. The rapid change in higher education could stand for some new qualitative studies to contextualize the structural effects we measure in national data sets. The book doesn't address my area -- for-profits -- and, in fact, obscures their position by holding fast to the somewhat outdated notion that higher education is still structured by prestige that correlates to price (i.e. the most expensive schools are the most prestigious). But the money, to me, is in the summary of soc of higher ed research in the first chapter and the policy recommendations in the conclusion. In the latter, Mullen finally deviates from her Bourdieuian theoretical approach (habitus, culture, concerted social identification with place) to talk about status competition, not that she uses the term. But when she recognizes that greater access to college only increases stratification and inequality despite public rhetoric that champtions more college as a poverty solution, she's summing up status competition.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Allison Lyman

    Let me start by saying I am a professional who works in Higher Education and I genuinely enjoy reading about Higher Ed for fun. However, this book was absolutely brutal to get through. There was no new or unexpected research in this work. The entirety could simply be summed up like this: as a whole, Yale students generally come from higher SES and more privileged backgrounds than other non-Ivy college students. Another gripe I had were the quotes from the students at both Yale and Southern. Did Let me start by saying I am a professional who works in Higher Education and I genuinely enjoy reading about Higher Ed for fun. However, this book was absolutely brutal to get through. There was no new or unexpected research in this work. The entirety could simply be summed up like this: as a whole, Yale students generally come from higher SES and more privileged backgrounds than other non-Ivy college students. Another gripe I had were the quotes from the students at both Yale and Southern. Did Mullen purposefully only include the most mindless, grammatically incorrect quotes from these students?! All of the "like" and "ya know" talk really distracted the reader. These students are Ivy League! There must be better quotes to feature in all of her interview recordings than the quotes she chose!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Maria C.

    I read this book, Degrees of Inequality and throughout the book the author is constantly comparing two universities, Yale and Southern Connecticut State University, in terms of majors, family resources, and extracurricular activities/involvement. On the whole, Yale students come out way ahead in terms of everything. The one thing I found interesting was that when the author compared the males and their majors at Yale and the males and their majors at Southern Connecticut State University, and st I read this book, Degrees of Inequality and throughout the book the author is constantly comparing two universities, Yale and Southern Connecticut State University, in terms of majors, family resources, and extracurricular activities/involvement. On the whole, Yale students come out way ahead in terms of everything. The one thing I found interesting was that when the author compared the males and their majors at Yale and the males and their majors at Southern Connecticut State University, and students from both universities cited economic concerns and future potential earnings, the author chose to put a halo around the Yale students who considered majors on whether they could/would maintain their families standard of living, as if they were doing something so unique, so wonderful, so worthy, so morally sublime, that the males from Southern Connecticut State University who were choosing majors also according to practical reasons, were looked at "well, they are just looking at the bottom line." Both Yale students and Southern Connecticut State university were looking at the bottom line, but the author chose to make the Yale students appear to be more noble, more virtous, than Southern Connecticut State university. Because the author did that, her bias and prejudice continues the degrees of inequality felt by students who go to non ivy league schools.

  4. 5 out of 5

    La'Tonya Rease Miles

    I really don’t understand the negative reviews. Just seem like haters to me. I find the study to be sound and articulated well. The section on how Yale students choose majors drags a little but I still found the information insightful. And I appreciate the author’s candor about the US needing to address social inequity on a systemic level.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Dustin DuFort Petty

    Looks at the commonalities and differences between students at Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University. Useful. But also obvious.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Anne

    Very readable work of scholarly research on the differences in attitudes toward college between a group of students at SCSU and Yale... including deciding to apply to college, deciding what to major in, deciding what to do after college and attitude toward a liberal arts curriculum. Relevant since I live literally in between the 2 schools and have connections to both. Relevant since my oldest is on the brink of the college application process. Like most of the Yale students interviewed, he has alwa Very readable work of scholarly research on the differences in attitudes toward college between a group of students at SCSU and Yale... including deciding to apply to college, deciding what to major in, deciding what to do after college and attitude toward a liberal arts curriculum. Relevant since I live literally in between the 2 schools and have connections to both. Relevant since my oldest is on the brink of the college application process. Like most of the Yale students interviewed, he has always known he would go to college. He is eager to pursue a liberal arts curriculum to broaden his knowledge and his learning skills (as he says, "I'm interested in everything"). Not a light read, but an interesting one.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    Favorite Quotes: "The United States seems to be comfortable with maintaining the illusion of equality of opportunity while turning a blind eye to increasing inequality." "Economic integration (of elementary and secondary schools) would be more effective than vouchers, standards, or reductions in class size (at narrowing the achievement gap between the rich and the poor)." Favorite Quotes: "The United States seems to be comfortable with maintaining the illusion of equality of opportunity while turning a blind eye to increasing inequality." "Economic integration (of elementary and secondary schools) would be more effective than vouchers, standards, or reductions in class size (at narrowing the achievement gap between the rich and the poor)."

  8. 4 out of 5

    T.R. Flockhart

  9. 5 out of 5

    Teniell

  10. 5 out of 5

    Boston

  11. 4 out of 5

    Natalie

  12. 4 out of 5

    Rich

  13. 4 out of 5

    Floralisa

  14. 5 out of 5

    Abby Jean

    Not great, some interesting info.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Debbie

  16. 5 out of 5

    Phil Kline

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joyce Kim

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rosemary Parker

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey Weinstein

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mallory Foutch

  21. 4 out of 5

    Graciela

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joe Harper

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mimi Moreland

  24. 5 out of 5

    Sean Duffy

  25. 5 out of 5

    Karina

  26. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie

  27. 5 out of 5

    Wendelle

  28. 5 out of 5

    Christian

  29. 5 out of 5

    Shweta

  30. 5 out of 5

    DavidHolly

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