Understanding Inequality in Higher Education: Insights from Comparing Asian Americans with Other Racial and Ethnic Groups

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-8085-9311
Wang, Yapeng, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Roksa, Josipa, Sociology, University of Virginia

Sociologists of education have relied on two primary frameworks for understanding educational inequality: status attainment and cultural capital. Both of those have been grounded in examining class inequality, and only more recently have started to pay more attention to racial/ethnic inequalities, and rarely to experiences of Asian Americans. This is a crucial omission. Asians represent one of the fastest-growing racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. Moreover, compared with other racial and ethnic groups, Asian Americans have quite unique experiences, from being treated as “culturally inferior” by mainstream society a century ago to being accoladed as “model minority” with desirable cultural traits. Their unique experiences can shape educational processes in ways that can provide novel insights and advance sociological theories of educational inequality.

Analyzing nationally representative data, this dissertation includes three stand-alone empirical chapters, each of which is asking unique questions aimed to push further our understanding of educational inequality. Chapter 2 addresses the role of socioeconomic background in shaping educational outcomes, and in particular, recent findings suggesting that socioeconomic background may play a limited role in fostering educational success for Asian Americans. The findings indicate that peer influence helps to explain a substantial portion of the Asian-white difference in the association between family socioeconomic status and college enrollment. These findings offer novel insights into the role of peers in differentially shaping educational attainment processes across racial/ethnic groups.

Chapter 3 engages with the literature on cultural capital, and in particular parenting practices related to concerted cultivation, to examine Asians’ advantage in college access. It finds that parenting practices associated with concerted cultivation do not contribute to explaining Asians’ advantage in college enrollment relative to their white counterparts. The results also reveal important differences across students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. These findings illuminate the limits of concerted cultivation and highlight the importance of expanding research on parenting to consider a range of racial/ethnic groups.

Chapter 4 examines how students’ intention to pursue a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field and the likelihood of graduating with a STEM degree vary at the intersection of race and gender. Results present a complex picture of the intersection of racial and gender inequality. Moreover, different mechanisms explain observed Asian-white differences between males and females. These findings reveal new patterns of inequality and highlight the importance of an intersectional approach for understanding inequalities in STEM education.

Taken together, these chapters indicate the importance of incorporating Asian Americans in the mainstream social stratification literature. They not only shed new light on classical educational inequality theories, such as status attainment and cultural capital, but also inspire researchers to explore new mechanisms that are not considered in the traditional sociological theories on educational inequality.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Social Stratification, Higher Education, College, Race and Ethnicity, Asian American, Status Attainment, Cultural Capital, Parenting, STEM
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: