I move beyond the narrow focus on information and the individual by examining the college choice more broadly within the larger context of the family, school, and community. In doing so, I identify several mechanisms of social inequality, showing how institutions and families of the middle- and upper-middle class work to procure advantages by cultivating dispositions among their children for specific types of higher education opportunities. As a result, middle-class youth apply to leading universities and colleges across the country because they are told from multiple sources that such colleges are appropriate and because they understand college as an opportunity to accumulate new experiences. In contrast, low-income and working-class students tend to limit their choices to colleges and universities close to home, even when they have knowledge about top colleges, because they understand college as a continuation of family interdependence that requires them to factor in their family needs.
This book contributes to existing knowledge in the following ways. First, this book links the structural aspects of social class (e.g. accumulated experiences and access to information) to the cultural aspects (e.g. narratives about family and frames about higher education) to explain social class differences in college application choices. In doing so, this book focuses directly on the processes that connect social class to college choices, showing what aspects of social class matters and how they matter in the decision-making process. Second, this book shows that choosing where to go to college is as much about the particular type of lifestyle that students want to pursue during college as it is about the institutional qualities of colleges. Lifestyle preferences reflect students’ social class experiences and upbringings. In particular, the decision about whether to apply to colleges across the country is based upon experiences and observations that students have accumulated over the years. Third, beyond the conceptual and theoretical contributions, a key methodological strength of the book is its ability to directly compare the experiences and understandings of lower- and higher- SES students at the moment in time when they are making key decisions about college applications.