Cultural Capital and Students' Experiences in College: The Role of Parents in Facilitating Students' Success

Deutschlander, Denise, Sociology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Roksa, Josipa, Department of Sociology, University of Virginia

Although college is popularly considered a path to upward mobility, even when students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families gain access to higher education they are less likely to graduate than their more advantaged peers. To explain persisting gaps in college completion, researchers have increasingly turned to exploring what happens inside higher education institutions, including students’ academic engagement. Building on cultural capital theory, I conceptualize academic engagement as a dimension of cultural capital, and consider ways in which parents could help to encourage students to engage with faculty and staff. While parents are central to research on social class inequality and cultural capital in K-12 education, they are rarely considered after students enter college.

To investigate the role of socioeconomically disadvantaged parents in facilitating greater academic engagement of students during college, I designed a text-message-based parent intervention to encourage parent-student conversations about students’ engagement with faculty and staff. The intervention was implemented as a randomized controlled trial with 617 families (approximately 75 percent low-income, 66 percent first-generation, and 70 percent Latinx students) during students’ first year in college. Student surveys at two points during the academic year and parent and student interviews before and after the first year of college are used to explore the effects of the intervention.

The results indicate that the parent intervention significantly increased parent-student discussions related to academic engagement, improved student attitudes toward academic engagement, and increased students’ intent to persist into their second year of college. Since effects of the parent intervention show that parents from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can contribute to the success of college students, this type of intervention may reduce inequality as those students are less likely to engage with faculty and staff and persist through college.

Furthermore, the results indicate that Latinx students experienced unique effects of the intervention—including increased parental support and less positive evaluations of interactions with faculty and staff. Interviews reveal that these treatment effects may be due to the closer relationships Latinx students experience with family members and in turn expect of faculty during college. These findings provide insight into the relationship between familism and college success for Latinx students, the fastest growing college population.

By engaging socioeconomically disadvantaged parents in their children’s college success, this study makes several contributions to the cultural capital research on social reproduction and mobility. First, analyses show that socioeconomically disadvantaged parents can engage in college conversations more common among socioeconomically advantaged families, and can do so in response to a light-touch intervention. Moreover, socioeconomically disadvantaged parents, who are often omitted in studies of college students’ success, can act as agents of change and facilitate their children’s greater academic engagement. Finally, the findings show notable variation by race/ethnicity, which is rarely attended to in the cultural capital literature. The findings also highlight the importance of familism and relationships in fostering student success, which are important to consider in future cultural capital research.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
cultural capital, randomized controlled trial, parents, higher education, postsecondary, college, causal research, first-generation students, low-income students, Latinx students
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