Understanding Differences in College Enrollment: Race, Class and Cultural Capital

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Race and Social Problems

Publication Date



Scholarship on race and class differences in educational outcomes has identified cultural capital, or cultural resources that can be utilized to increase educational success, as important mechanisms of educational inequality. However, despite substantial interest, the role of cultural capital in producing inequalities among American students remains unclear. In this research, we use nationally representative data from the Educational Longitudinal Study to clarify the relationships among race, social class, cultural capital and 4-year college enrollment. Using a theoretically based approach to operationalizing social class and measures of both cultural capital possession and activation, this research finds that while black students tend to possess fewer resources than their white counterparts at any class level, they activate cultural capital to a greater degree than white students. Results also show that while cultural capital can explain differences between low-income and middle-income students, a persistent middle-class advantage remains for both black and white students. Additionally, results indicate that at any class level, black students are more likely than their white counterparts to attend a 4-year university. Finally, results show that measures of cultural capital possession and activation have generally independent effects on college enrollment.