Honors Thesis Spotlight: Cultural Capital, Social Capital, and Horizontal Stratification among University

Relative inequality (average disproportion of income) can either be reduced or extended by the abundance of cultural and social capital. Cultural capital comes from one’s knowledge and academic credential, while social capital is obtained through the connections one has (e.g. clubs or social networks). Previous research has concentrated on how social and cultural capital functions in secondary schooling concerning someone’s family or social ties. This research utilizes previous analyses of cultural capital being conceptualized and the information about social capital to gauge how educational institutions shape them; and how those institutions emulate or reduce inequality amidst horizontally stratified student groups who are institutionally designated. Jimenez presents three hypotheses for this study: “(H1) Honors and elite academic scholarship program students accumulate higher levels of cultural and social capital than the general student body, (H2) Elite academic scholarship program accumulate higher levels of cultural and social capital than honors students, and (H3) honors and elite academic scholarship program students at more research-intensive universities accumulate higher levels of cultural and social capital than similar students at smaller, less research-intensive universities,” (4).

The US education system is publicly viewed as a way to give students skill sets and knowledge that will help them gain the future they desire. However, educational institutions do not stand alone in granting students new opportunities or human capital (economic value of a person for their experience or skill set). Schools can be a medium for students with advanced backgrounds which enables students to use the knowledge and skills from their background to excel. While students who come from a disadvantaged background are given a safe place from their surroundings as opposed to students from an advantaged background. Schools become a place where students with prior capital have more influence than those who do not.

Tertiary education (e.g. universities, colleges, vocational schools) offers “a unique heterogeneous cultural experience through which students are offered an opportunity to further utilize and enhance existing skills and knowledge while at the same time developing new ones.” (5). While universities do offer cultural immersion, not every student has the same experiences or is even granted the same education; thus, it can produce unequal outcomes in social and cultural capital in undergraduates. Some research has found that an abundance of unequal cultural and social capital depends on the social background of the student, which can shape their academic success. When a student has a higher level of social capital, the student has more psychological and academic benefits; and it has been documented that social capital can reduce disadvantages that students of color face. Compared to social capital, cultural capital has been focused on outside areas of educational institutions and presumes that its accumulation ends early.

To conduct this study, a survey was sent to 734 undergraduates in horizontally stratified student subgroups at multiple public universities in the Southeast to test the three hypotheses with their social and cultural experiences. The survey looked into if students in honor or elite scholarship programs gained more social and cultural capital compared to the general student body; if students in elite scholarship programs gained more social or cultural capital compared to students in honor programs; and if the accumulation of social and cultural capital changes between different universities who have varying research designations. The results of the whole study, literary review, and survey support the idea that students in honors and elite programs accumulate more social and cultural capital than the general student body. In addition, students in honor and elite programs at research-intense universities gain more social and cultural capital as opposed to students in honor and elite programs at universities that are less research-intense.

Alec Jimenez is a graduate of the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University. This post was based on Alec’s honors thesis, written by COSSPP Blog Intern, Lindsey Anderson.

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