Read the working paper
INSEAD Working paper 2014/47/OBH
In the contemporary United States, higher education is touted as the primary vehicle for upward mobility. Despite the introduction of numerous policies that encourage working-class students to attend college, class inequalities in enrollment persist. Existing explanations of the enrollment gap focus on the rising costs of tuition as well as class-based differences students’ abilities and aspirations. We argue that none of these explanations fully explain enrollment patterns. Drawing on 120 interviews with three generations of working- and middle-class Americans, we demonstrate that college enrollment requires a distinctly 21st century synthesis of social and cultural capital that hinges on strategic planning in the marketplace. We label this capital “savvy” and situate its development within the rise of college-for-all ideology, the expansion and differentiation of the higher education system, and the privatization of childrearing. We conclude that increasing differences in access to savvy is a key driver of the reproduction of inequality.