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Identity Politics in American Higher Education: The Need for More Diversity, Recognition, and Inclusion



This paper adopts a Rawlsian theoretical framework to investigate how group membership shapes the experiences of three demographics previously barred from higher education on a systemic level: women, people of color, and people without significant or adequate material means. Rawls's idea of justice would allow the government to proac-tively extend college accessibility to underprivileged or underrepre-sented groups even if doing so amounts to a minimal degree of »un-fairness« towards specific demographics. While Rawls's »veil of ignorance« may appear to provide a group-blind answer to issues of identity, its phenomenological ideal in the real world lies in transcending the differences of identity rather than »masking« them. The paper leverages the results of recent studies on diversity and equity in higher education to proffer solutions to recurrent problems in the area of college accessibility.
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Paul Nnodim and Katherine Duval
Identity Politics in American
Higher Education: The Need for More
Diversity, Recognition, and Inclusion1
This paper adopts a Rawlsian theoretical framework to investigate how
group membership shapes the experiences of three demographics pre-
viously barred from higher education on a systemic level: women,
people of color, and people without significant or adequate material
means. Rawls’s idea of justice would allow the government to proac-
tively extend college accessibility to underprivileged or underrepre-
sented groups even if doing so amounts to a minimal degree of »un-
fairness« towards specific demographics. While Rawls’s »veil of
ignorance« may appear to provide a group-blind answer to issues of
identity, its phenomenological ideal in the real world lies in transcend-
ing the differences of identity rather than »masking« them. The paper
leverages the results of recent studies on diversity and equity in higher
education to proffer solutions to recurrent problems in the area of col-
lege accessibility.
The American educational system has expanded enfranchisement
several times in order to integrate women, people of color, and people
from diverse economic classes, among other historically marginalized
groups. The impacts of this effort are evident in higher education,
which is increasingly becoming a necessary factor in gaining access
to professional fields, to say nothing of the inherent value of academic
pursuits. Especially in recent decades, large segments of college ad-
ministrators, students, and citizens have continued to accentuate the
need for diversity on college campuses, and this cultural shift should
be acknowledged and celebrated. Still, various demographics of the
American population are underrepresented in the higher education
system, both private and public.
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Moreover, numerous examples of painstaking research con-
ducted within the last twenty years reveal different trends for indivi-
duals who do enroll in a two or four-year program depending on gen-
der, race, and social class. Women now outnumber men on college
campuses around the country and outpace men in earning bachelor’s
degrees. While the enrollment gap among different racial and ethnic
groups is closing, college completion rates unfortunately still vary
considerably between Asian and White students vis-à-vis Black and
Latinx students. Also, the gap in enrollment to selective institutions
between students from different social and economic classes remains
disconcertingly wide. Although the country as a whole has taken sig-
nificant measures over the years in ensuring equality of education,
the enrollment gaps persist. They reveal not only that colleges and
universities must amend their outreach and guidance strategies, but
that there are perhaps deep-seated and often impalpable cultural
forces that continue to determine which demographics have more or
less access to higher education in America.
The discourse on individual identity (especially its relation to
demographic group association) is becoming a dominant framework
of thought, around which many other debates revolve. In our day, the
American people, especially younger generations, are demanding that
we listen to the voices of groups, who historically had been silenced.
Beyond that, there is the need to consider each person as having an
individual narrative, which is potentially informed by demographic
group membership and a multitude of contextually specific identities.
Nevertheless, it seems that access to, and experience within, higher
education is to some extent still influenced by individuals’ group
membership and associated societal biases. This paper aims to exam-
ine how group membership shapes the experiences of three demo-
graphics previously barred from higher education on a systemic level:
women, people of color, and people without significant or adequate
material means. It relies on the results of recent studies on diversity
and equity in higher education in proffering solutions that will im-
prove and expand equality of education not only in name, but in prac-
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A Rawlsian Theoretical Framework
The theoretical framework for this paper is essentially Rawlsian.
Although American students in their various campuses are in the real
world, ideally speaking, the basic institutions of society that deter-
mine accessibility outcomes should preferably be arranged according
to principles of justice chosen in the hypothetical world or an imagin-
ary, contractual situation to eliminate or reduce unfairness. Since the
main thrust of the social justice debate in the United States revolves
around distributive procedures of social and economic institutions,
injustice then arises from the failures of these institutions to attain
efficient and fair distribution of primary social and economic goods.
To mitigate the steep inequality in the United States, the late
Harvard professor, John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971) redefines
society as a system of social cooperation, with the burdens and bene-
fits of social cooperation spread out among equal, cooperating mem-
bers or citizens. To arrive at such a system of formal equality, Rawls
proposes a revival of the social contract theory with a phenomenolo-
gical undercurrent. Members of society would choose representatives
who must immerse themselves in a hypothetical state of fundamental
equality known as the original position. In this state, the representa-
tives would put on the »veil of ignorance,« which would induce in
them something akin to temporary, dissociative amnesia. Suddenly,
they have no clue about their particular situations. They no longer
know their political affiliations, economic interests, race, gender, sex-
ual orientation, position in society, religion, talents, psychological dis-
positions, advantages or disadvantages, and so forth. However, the
representatives in the original position still have access to one signifi-
cant information: they represent diverse interest groups in a func-
tioning democratic society (e.g., The United States) and are in the
original position to choose the principles of justice for their society.
Rawls thinks that in this »original position« of equality, these repre-
sentatives would only choose principles of justice that further their
rational interest because no one knows how he or she would fare in
real life. The veil of ignorance and its bracketing effects ensure that
the representatives adopt a conservative attitude toward risk and thus
choose principles that allow the least undesirable conditions for the
worst-off members of society. Rawls (1996) calls principles chosen in
this hypothetically strict condition of equality, or original position,
the »two principles of justice as fairness:«
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»a. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic
rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for
all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties,
are to be guaranteed their fair value.
b. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they
are to be attached to positions of offices open to all under conditions of fair
equality of opportunity, and second, they are to be to the greatest benefits of
the least advantaged members of society.« (Rawls 1996, 5f.)
Once the representatives emerge from the original position to the real
world, they will have to test the decisions they make in the real world
against the backdrop of their considered moral judgment in the origi-
nal position. They will do this by traversing mentally back and forth
the original position and the real world using »reflective equili-
brium.« The two principles of justice have implications for policy-
makers. The first principle of justice, which is also known as the equal
basic liberty principle, ensures citizens are guaranteed the same
amount of liberties. The first principle of justice has lexical priority
over the second principle. This means that in a society governed by
justice as fairness, none of these basic principles can be traded off for
other valued ends. The basic liberties, for example, cannot be taken
away from a given demographic group, even if doing so promotes
economic efficiency. The priority of the basic liberties, however, does
not imply that these liberties cannot be limited in any form. Rawls
says that the basic liberties can be restricted among themselves in
order to achieve a coherent scheme of liberties for all citizens. In other
words, should the basic liberties come into conflict with one another,
the institutional rules that define them must be adjusted to enable
these liberties to fit into a coherent scheme (see ibid., 295). Therefore,
one can be denied a basic liberty in society for the sake of one or more
basic liberties.
Nevertheless, a basic liberty cannot be denied to anyone for the
sake of other public goods or valued ends, other than liberty itself.
The first principle of justice also grants priority to the rights of indi-
viduals over the demands of the political majority. As Rawls puts it:
»The priority of the basic liberties implies that they cannot be justly
denied to anyone, or to any group of persons, or even to all citizens
generally, on grounds that such is the desire, or overwhelming pre-
ference, of an effective political majority, however strong and endur-
ing« (ibid., 365).
The second principle of justice has two sections. The first section
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is referred to as the »fair equality of opportunity« principle, while the
second section is known as the »difference principle.« Again, among
the second principles of justice, »fair equality of opportunity« has
priority over the »difference principle.« The fair equality of opportu-
nity principle regulates political offices, advertisements for jobs, and
products for sale in society, among other things. It ensures that all
positions are accessible to all citizens. Furthermore, it authorizes the
government to make sure that employers or administrators of ter-
tiary institutions meet the requirements of fairness and equality
when advertising job openings or admission offerings. For example,
these positions should not contain racist or sexist statements, words
or phrases that undermine fairness.
The »difference principle« is especially interesting because it
calls for the toleration of some social and economic inequalities if
doing so improves the situation of the worst off in society. Nonethe-
less, the difference principle does not call for inequalities as such, but
instead recognizes the human condition in which through sheer brute
luck and natural contingencies, social and economic disparities exist
among citizens in modern societies. It looks for ways to remedy some
of the effects of these inequalities. Rawls contends that citizens’
chances in life neither must be determined by the social position in
which they are born nor must a person’s natural talents or lack of
such determine his or her prospects wholly in life. Rather, society
should see one’s place of birth and the distribution of natural talents
as a fortuitous happenchance and, as such, mitigate the negative ef-
fects they may have on citizens’ life prospects (Rawls 1971). Thus, the
distribution of natural talents must be treated as a common, societal
or communal asset
The unequal distribution of natural dispositions, which results in
uneven distribution of wealth and positions in society, while not
being erased entirely, may be allowed under the condition that it ben-
efits the least advantaged members of society. We do not deserve our
place in the distribution of native endowments. »Who would deny
it?« Rawls asks. »Do people really think that they (morally) deserved
to be born more gifted than others? Do they think that they (morally)
deserved to be born a man rather than a woman, or vice versa? Do
they think that they really deserved to be born into a wealthier rather
than into a poorer family? No.« (2001, 74f.).
But to see the distribution of natural talents as a common asset
does not mean that gifted people are not entitled to the benefits that
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their abilities secure. Instead, the difference principle, as a principle of
reciprocity, seeks ways to diminish the effects of this arbitrary distri-
bution by reordering the basic structure of society. As a result, those
who have much talent and those who have less complement each
other in ways that benefit society as the whole. It is important to
mention that what Rawls refers to as »common asset« is the distribu-
tion of native endowments and not native endowments as such. So-
ciety does not lay claim to an individuals’ endowments taken sepa-
rately, looking at individuals one by one. The first principle of justice
already secures the liberties of persons. (ibid., 75) In practical terms,
what »common asset« represents are the different talents and dispo-
sitions that cooperating individuals have. Irrespective of whether
these differences are variations in talents of the same kind or not,
they serve a balancing function in society.
Justice as fairness as an egalitarian principle of justice could al-
low the government to tax wealthy individuals in order to alleviate
the situation of the worst off if they are active and contributing mem-
bers of society. The difference principle would allow the government
to proactively provide social goods and services to disadvantaged
members of the society, which in our particular case entails the exten-
sion of college accessibility to underprivileged or underrepresented
groups, even if doing so imposes more taxes on the super-rich. But,
how might one resolve any form of resentment emanating from the
perception of being denied access to education by a more talented stu-
dent or a student who has been privileged by historical circumstances
(not necessarily of their making) to have better preparation and qua-
lification for admission into a competitive, selective college? We want
to make clear from the onset that the difference principle does not
support the idea of a quota system, but advocates for more govern-
ment resources towards leveling the playing field for all to become
competitive. In the end, a more educated citizenry translates to a
more sophisticated people, a more enlightened and a less antagonistic
society. In appropriating the Rawlsian model, we view college accessi-
bility as a primary social good, which should not elude citizens (stu-
dents and prospective students) because of socioeconomic identity,
race or gender. While the veil of ignorance may appear to provide a
group-blind answer to issues of identity, its phenomenological ideal
in the real world lies in transcending the differences of identity rather
than masking them. Ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic »group-
blindness« is often the creed utilized by non-progressive elements to
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stifle programs intended to redress historical racial or gender injus-
tices. By appropriating Rawls’s model, we hope to argue not only for a
politics of redistribution and recognition but also to move away from
the current divisive American identity politics of exclusion to one of
inclusion and unity.
Gender and Higher Education
Presently, the rates at which American women are enrolling in two
and four-year programs, and completing them, outpace those of their
male counterparts. This gender divide transcends race. During the
2013–2014 academic year, women received 56 % of bachelor’s degrees
conferred to white students; 64% of degrees conferred to African-
American students; 60% of degrees conferred to Hispanic students
(National Center for Education Statistics). Women have made tre-
mendous progress in not only adapting to the university culture, but
excelling in that setting, despite historical trends in America that dis-
couraged women from dedicating themselves to academia. Men are
steadily becoming a minority on college campuses around the coun-
try, with the U.S. Department of Education estimating that 57% of
college students will be women by 2026 (see Marcus 2017).
Several theories have been put forward to explain this disparity.
Some analysts argue that the behavioral differences between boys
and girls in primary and secondary schools are the root causes of this
trend. In a 2006 paper, Claudia Golden, Lawrence F. Katz, and Ilyana
Kuziemko argue that the current trends in higher education are indi-
cative of a »homecoming« of American women undergraduates. They
present a timeline where women and men reached parity in college
undergraduate programs in the 1930s and subsequently lost that par-
ity after men once again became the dominant majority in colleges
and universities after World War II. Women again reached parity,
and then claimed the majority, between the 1980s and the new mil-
lennium (see Mellins et al., 2). Researchers provide several reasons
for this shift. First, as women began to reach parity with men in terms
of workforce entry, their pursuits in higher education also increased,
particularly because »the college (log or percentage) wage premium
has been for some time higher for women than men (Dougherty
2005)« (ibid., 21). Moreover, since developments of the last few dec-
ades show women entering marriage later in life and divorce rates
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rising since the 1960s, women may feel an insurance-based motiva-
tion to attend college so as to achieve financial independence and the
ability to be financially responsible for their children (see ibid., 22).
Boys, by contrast, did not experience such rapid and radical social
change, and still dealt with behavioral issues in the school setting,
enabling their female counterparts to capitalize on their newfound
social status and outpace them (see ibid., 24).
The research of Judith Kleinfeld also provides some insight into
why the gender gap in higher education seems to be reversing. In
2009, Kleinfeld conducted interviews with 99 high school seniors in
the Fairbanks, Alaska area. Though the sample was small, and from
the same geographic location, Kleinfeld was able to obtain revealing
answers from the student participants. Many of the young women in
the study had already applied to college during the time of the inter-
views and had general plans for what they wanted to study and their
futures. The young women in Kleinfeld’s study viewed a college edu-
cation as an important investment in their lives, and one that would
enable them to have meaningful and fulfilling careers.
Several young women also felt inspired by and indebted to the
Women’s Rights Movement of the last few decades, recognizing that
they have more opportunities than women of the past generations.
The young women Kleinfeld talked to were generally not concerned
with obtaining high incomes, and few named this as a motivating fac-
tor for receiving a higher education.
Conversely, the young men Kleinfeld talked to were in a differ-
ent position: whereas 72% of the young women saw college as a »vi-
tal educational investment,« only 49% of the young men viewed col-
lege in the same vein. There was also a greater divide among the
young men based on social class than there was with the women.
The male students whose parents had gone to college reported that
they saw a college education as simply the next, expected step, even
when they were unsure about going to college or what to study. Only
29% of young men whose parents did not go to college saw college as
a noteworthy investment in the future, and many young men from
lower socio-economic backgrounds did not see college as necessary or
important. Both the female and male students who participated in the
study referred to boys as »lazy«; many of the young men had inter-
nalized this stereotype, and believed that they did not have the disci-
pline for academia.
Kleinfeld points to some possible reasons for the results she ob-
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tained. One factor may be as simple as the shifting economy: in gen-
erations when a good paying job was not necessarily dependent on a
college education, men mostly dominated the workforce. Many
young men today have relatives who were able to enter into high-
paying jobs and attain higher positions without a college degree, even
though many of those jobs now require one. As a result, some young
men are unaware of exactly what steps they will need to take in order
to have the lifestyle they envision for themselves. Moreover, several
of the male students Kleinfeld worked with had somewhat unrealistic
notions of what they could achieve without a college degree, citing
video game designers and music producers who make significant sal-
aries without a college education.
The results of Kleinfeld’s study and the apparent trend in gender
divisions on campuses suggest that male students feel alienated by
academia to some degree, finding it a waste of their time or outside
of their capabilities. The education system leading up to higher edu-
cation perhaps has to do a better job of showing men what benefits
accompany a college degree in the modern economy and the limita-
tions that the lack of such training can impose on an individual.
Though it is true that women have found a place for themselves in
academia, we must be careful to avoid a new paradigm of gender-
based enrollment and work toward the fair representation of all gen-
der identities in American colleges and universities. If prevailing cul-
tural mindsets influence people of specific gender identity not to seek
an equal and meaningful education, we must work to mitigate those
attitudes. There are, however, particular ways in which colleges and
universities remain male-oriented in their perspectives and actions.
There are quite a few fields, particularly among the sciences and
mathematics, where women are underrepresented. Women continue
to receive far fewer degrees in computer sciences, engineering, or
mathematics (National Girls Collaborative Project).
More insidiously, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses
is a matter of concern for all people, particularly women. Estimates
reveal that 20–25% of people of all gender identities, but particularly
women and gender non-conforming students, remain victims of sex-
ual assault on campuses (though exact statistics are difficult to gather)
(Mellins, et al.). In a review of thirty-four studies on campus sexual
assault between 2000 and 2015, Lisa Fedina, Jennifer Lynne Holmes,
and Bethany L. Backes conclude that though exact rates of assault are
elusive for a myriad of reasons, unwanted sexual contact and sexual
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coercion appear to be the most prevalent forms of exploitation on col-
lege campuses. Nonetheless, most of the research done on this issue
has relied on sampling predominantly white, heterosexual women,
indicating that more work must be done to understand sexual victi-
mization of women of color and people of different sexual orienta-
tions on college campuses (90).
It is vital to ensure that all aspects of the college experience, and
all resources the college or university has to offer, are equally acces-
sible regardless of gender. If female students, or students of non-con-
forming gender identities, have significant reason to fear for their
safety, then their ability to learn is compromised. Colleges and uni-
versities must instill protocols that ensure fair and objective investi-
gations of all reports of sexual assault. This means that any fears in-
stitutions have about tarnishing their reputations as a result of
adequately investigating and reporting criminal activities on their
campuses must be forgotten in favor of adequately protecting stu-
dents. Moreover, institutions may seek to offer incentives for quali-
fied women enrollees to pursue further education in the sciences, to
work toward gender parity. While it is possible that women inher-
ently prefer fields in the humanities, it seems more likely that biases
in culture and education sequester STEM fields to the purview of
men. The implementation of scholarships and recruiting programs
geared toward women, and the employment of women faculty mem-
bers in STEM departments, may help the goal of gender parity in all
subjects of inquiry.
Race and Higher Education
The complexities of racial identity and its role in how individuals ex-
perience life in America are numerous and deserve considerable at-
tention. The scope of this chapter examines only how racial identity
may influence a person’s ability to access and thrive in higher educa-
tion. Given the intricacies surrounding how race functions in all areas
of society, it will be impossible to capture every aspect of racial iden-
tity and relation to higher education. The history of racial segregation
in public schools and the lasting inequalities in resources available to
schools where students are predominantly Black and Hispanic affect
the experience of minority students on college campuses. Affirmative
action programs, and institutions like Historically Black Colleges and
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Universities, have worked to mitigate the effects of systematic racism
and inequality, but they also have certain drawbacks. Even more trou-
bling, racist sentiments and stereotypes seem so prevalent in Ameri-
can culture that such programs may not level the playing field en-
ough for students of all races, or make up for unequal access to
educational resources and opportunities. Though these students can
succeed at the college level, the university may be unable to provide
them with the enabling environment to thrive.
The enrollment gap between races is closing; still, Asian and
White students complete two and four-year programs and earn ba-
chelor’s degrees at higher rates than their Black and Hispanic counter-
parts. These statistics are disturbing, and reveal a disconnect between
the intellectual ability of Black and Hispanic students, and the empha-
sis historically white institutions place on integrating students of col-
or. Diversity is a desirable and necessary component of a college cam-
pus, and institutions across the country seriously realize that fact.
Unfortunately, the effects of recruitment campaigns have little impact
if retention rates across demographics are abysmal. Aside from the
ethical consideration for inclusiveness and broadening opportunities
in American education to the reach of all races, racial diversity on
college campuses contributes to the broader educational environment
because meeting and empathizing with people of different back-
grounds is an integral part of learning about our shared world.
However, in spite of the need for diversity on campuses, and the
stated desire for increased diversity by institutions of higher educa-
tion, the rates of degree completion vary widely among different ra-
cial demographics. Asian and white students graduate and complete
their programs and earn degrees at similar rates (62 percent and 63.2
percent respectively), while Hispanic students and black students
graduate and complete degrees at rates of 45.8 percent and 38 percent,
respectively (see Tate 2017). It is unsettling that less than half the
population of students of color, on average, complete higher education
programs. The higher rate of financial instability that students of col-
or experience is more probably responsible for this gap, in addition to
a feeling of being an unwelcome group in specific college commu-
nities. This feeling may happen for several reasons, including out-
ward racial discrimination and exclusion, which can place students of
color, psychologically speaking, on an unequal educational vantage
point from their white counterparts, as well as engender a sense of
insecurity. On other occasions, this feeling of exclusion may also
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come about in subtle or insidious ways. Students may feel unwelcome
by being a noticeable minority on the college campus or having their
rightfully earned place in the classroom questioned because of mis-
understood notions of affirmative action policies.
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) offer an
alternative to black students by creating a space where their education
is not mostly affected by race or defined by terms set by the dominant
college community on the basis of race or ethnicity. This may also
explain why 20 percent of black students who complete bachelor’s
degrees nationally do so at HBCUs. Moreover, data collected by The
Equality of Opportunity project finds that HBCUs do better than
most other institutions of higher education regarding enrolling stu-
dents from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Nevertheless, the op-
portunity for social mobility that these institutions offer is difficult to
calculate; though, new evidence suggests HBCUs may provide more
social mobility than previously thought (see Reeves and Joo 2017).
According to a 2017 study by the Educational Trust Survey, black stu-
dents at HBCUs graduated at an average rate of 37.8 percent, com-
pared to an average rate of 32 percent at non-HBCUs (see Chiles
These graduation rates are still remarkably low, and many fac-
tors may contribute to why students of color are often unable to reach
their full potential in higher education. Marybeth Gasman and Dor-
sey Spencer Jr. in their essay High Achieving Black Men at Histori-
cally Black Colleges and Universities outline numerous reasons why
black men, in particular, may be falling behind their female counter-
parts when it comes to earning degrees. They trace behavioral differ-
ences between high-achieving students and their less academically
successful counterparts. Gasman and Spencer cite a 2008 study by
Robert Palmer and Terrell Strayhorn, where Palmer and Strayhorn
discuss four themes which tend to define high-achieving black male
students at HBCUs: 1) personal responsibility; 2) focus and direction;
3) management of time; and 4) fervor for major (19). Gasman and
Spencer suggest that for students who do not have these behavioral
patterns, academic pursuits can become secondary to social life (see
2012, 20).
Working off of the research of Brown and Davis, they further
suggest that because education has historically been seen by Black
Americans as the way to prosperity and the American dream, stu-
dents of color may choose majors which they feel will lead to profit-
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able careers, even when the skill sets for such majors or the passion
for pursuing them may be lacking (ibid.). This, of course, does not
take into account the politics of pre-college education, where wealthy
neighborhoods have better-resourced schools.
Citing Palmer and Terrell, Gasman and Spencer put forth five
aspects of campus life, which if enhanced can bring male students
and HBCUs to a similar level of academic achievement as their suc-
cessful peers: 1) relationships with faculty; 2) the perspective of cam-
pus administration; 3) the effects of role models and mentors; 4) the
behavior of and relationships with peers; and 5) the overall disposi-
tion of the campus. Though the authors restrict these factors to their
research with HBCUs, there is no reason why majority-white schools
cannot try to implement changes to their policies, administration, and
campus climate in order to make students of color feel that they can
learn in a safe and integrated environment, where their creativity and
academic pursuits are fully and equally respected. The history of ra-
cism in America is still very much present in the academic world,
though it often slithers through the academic community in a
stealthily treacherous manner. Even so, the emotional and psycho-
logical effect this discrimination has on students of color is real and
leaves the affected students infuriated, alienated, and sometimes de-
vastated. With that in mind, any administration’s first step to dealing
with this pervasive issue adequately should be to allow students of
color to speak freely about their experiences. College administrators,
faculty members, and other students must work not to deny or ex-
plain away the experiences of students of color, but instead should
act in a way that aligns with students’ needs as they are vocalized.
Policies may need to change, and disciplinary responses to racist and
hate speech or acts by fellow students, faculty, or staff ought to be
In one of the author’s experience, a college campus can often de-
volve into segregation by default. White students and students of col-
or tend to gravitate toward people from their own racial group, which,
sadly, is only to be expected given the general cultural separation of
races in American society. In spite of this, the responsibility of dealing
with racism on college campuses lies in large part with the dominant
race; white students and faculty members educating themselves on
the issues affecting students of color in the college community. That
said, students, faculty and staff of color on college campuses can help
create awareness of diversity through organizing and activism, even
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in difficult circumstances where their efforts are met with denial or
inadequate responses. Colleges and universities may consider imple-
menting programs for all incoming freshman in diversity training
and awareness, and provide them with a system for reporting inci-
dents of racism they are witness to, so that students of color are not
alone in their petitions to administration. However, this would only
be successful if those in the administration take adequate measures to
restore a sense of justice and community when racist incidents are
Of course, college campuses are not racially binary. Looking out-
side of the experience of black students, Latinx students also face bar-
riers when it comes to higher education. As the population of Latinx
individuals increases overall in the United States, it is reasonable to
project that the college enrollment of students with a Latin back-
ground will also increase. However, in an interview with Eric Hoover,
Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher
Education (2017), acknowledges that the expected shift in enrollment
has not necessarily happened. Grawe instead points to data that sug-
gests that while enrollment at two-year institutions and regional
four-year institutions is slightly on the rise, enrollment of Latinx stu-
dents at more elite universities is minimal and stagnant. The demo-
graphic shift those institutions are experiencing has more to do with
higher enrollment of Asian students than any other group.
The enrollment disparity among Latinx students is an issue of
concern, which requires further research to unearth the underlying
causes. As this demographic continues to grow in the United States
in general, and colleges and universities in particular, extending edu-
cational enfranchisement to them is paramount. In a 2018 case study,
Roderick L. Carey administered extensive interviews with two male
students of color, one Black and one Latino, who were both in their
junior year of high school and considering their plans for college. Car-
ey uncovered significant family-related concerns for both students as
they contemplated their futures. One of the participants, a boy who
chose the pseudonym Perdido, was affected by a strong urge to re-
main with his family. The thought of losing his connection with
them, or having his identity changed drastically by college, weighed
heavily on his mind (see Carey 2018, 261). Though his parents
strongly encouraged him to attend college, his lack of many close re-
latives or role models who had attended college made higher educa-
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tion a daunting prospect, since only an older brother and an uncle
attended college from his large family.
Furthermore, »Perdido talked at length about the ways he felt his
brother and uncle became more distanced from the family during and
after college« (ibid.). Familismo, a fundamental cultural value among
many Latinx societies and families that emphasizes family above all
else, may have contributed to the significant familial responsibilities
Perdido felt, and which made him cautious of losing his connection to
his family. Moreover, Perdido’s fear of acquiring too much debt while
in school, and then burdening his family after graduation, was likely
linked to this value as well (ibid., 264). This cultural phenomenon is
perhaps also a contributing element in why Latinx families tend to-
ward a »college-at-home« experience for their children, rather than
encouraging them to study away from home.
The work of Eric Freeman (2017) provides more insight into fa-
milismo. Focusing on Hispanic students in Winstead, Kansas, a meat-
packing town which has seen a steady growth of Latinx immigrants
over the last twenty-five years, Freeman and his team collected data
about the college selection process from students at Winstead High
School (WHS) and Barlow County Community College (BCCC). For
many of the students involved in the study, a complex web of familial
responsibility, financial concerns, and individual considerations
emerged. Though some contemplated leaving home and enrolling in
a more selective, out-of-state institution, students’ strong desire to
still be close to their families, and their various responsibilities within
their families (childcare, financial support) often made them reconsi-
der this as an option. The researchers cite several examples where
students familial obligations made them reconsider their plans for
higher education. Thomas, for example, originally planned to go to
Boston University to study biomedical engineering, but decided clo-
ser to home and studies respiratory therapy at Oklahoma Panhandle
State University after his little brother became seriously ill (see Free-
man 2017, 87). Similarly, Sofia chose to attend BCCC so she could
remain close to her family, but still receive the education her parents
had strived to provide her with (ibid., 88). Though some of the stu-
dents the researchers worked with could have potentially gone to
more selective schools, a myriad of factors led these students to make
decisions about higher education that worked not just for them and
their pursuits, but also those of their families. Freeman et al. stress
that these decisions should not be interpreted under the framework
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of college under match, which looks only at certain indicators of aca-
demic achievement to match students with schools, but to instead
view these decisions as students evaluating the fitness of a college on
various levels. Freeman writes:
»Where deficit models explain undermatch by gauging a student’s social
digressions or cultural shortcomings, an ecological perspective of college fit
incorporates a wide array of determinants such as cultural and economic
background, familismo, proximity to home, community social capital, aca-
demic preparation, campus culture, student-life activities and supports, and
college affordability.« (ibid., 90)
Latinx students in Winstead potentially evaluated their college op-
tions with different factors in mind than their non-Latinx, non-first
generation peers, whose mindsets about the college selection process
are likely less informed by familial obligation, and who have been
socialized into the traditional American university system.
Melissa A. Martinez also explores the role of familismo in La-
tinx students’ decision making progress in her article (Re)considering
the Role Familismo Plays in Latinx High School Students’ College
Choices (2013). Students involved in Martinez’s study expressed a
desire to remain closer to home and to their immediate families, and
often acknowledged that their families would prefer them to attend
local schools, at least for their first two years of college. Students like
Samuel, Celina, and Cristobal all chose to attend schools in the region
in order to remain closer to their families and the emotional support
they provide (see Martinez 2013, 30). However, even for students
who envisioned attending school farther away from home, familismo
still played a role in the selection process, as Mariela’s story indicates.
Though Mariela initially wanted to leave the area for college, she ul-
timately decided she would attend a school closer to home in order to
remain in line with her parents’ wishes (see ibid., 31). As strong as the
impulse to remain close to home seems to be for some Latinx students
and their parents, Martinez’s research also reveals several instances of
parents supporting their children’s desire to leave home for college,
after some initial reluctance (see ibid., 34). Martinez notes, »The hes-
itations Latinx parents expressed in letting their students leave for
college were likely signs of strong attitudinal aspects of familismo,
and perhaps a lack of familiarity with the process« (ibid., 35). Marti-
nez’s research shows how cultural forces affect students’ choices of
which schools they will attend. However, Martinez states that famil-
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ismo should not be viewed by the academic community as an internal
cultural deficit that holds back Latinx students, but that college re-
cruiters and high school predatory programs work to involve parents
more in the process. They should provide prospective students’ par-
ents with up to date information about admission options and finan-
cial aids (37).
Once students decide where to go, the school’s ability to retain
them and lead them toward graduation is crucial. With that in mind,
Norma A. Marrun advocates for increased funding for and develop-
ment of ethnic studies programs in institutions of higher education.
Marrun’s research indicates that including Latinx heritage in the col-
lege curriculum in a comprehensive way allows for students from
that demographic to feel that their identities are respected and valued
among the college system, and also will enable students to learn about
their history. She argues that such programs can create an integral
and lasting space for Latinx students in a way that is much more ef-
fective than campus diversity task forces, which usually come about
in response to racial hostility already present on campus (see Marrun
2018, 288). Such programs could be implemented for all backgrounds,
in the same way women’s studies programs were applied to correct
gender discrimination in the twentieth century.
For students of color, representation and inclusion in the campus
community are crucial to academic success. Colleges and universities
should intensify efforts at recruiting faculty and staff of color and
other minorities to represent the percentage of their student bodies
that are of minority backgrounds. Students of color often feel alie-
nated or even intimidated when all they see around them are white
faculty and staff, not folks that they can identify with, from within
their communal experiences, as mentors or role models. More than a
diversity task force, which often is called in only when an incident of
racial discrimination has already taken place, a cultural shift is neces-
sary on most academic campuses to combat discrimination and ra-
Economic Identity and College Accessibility
As of late, American politicians and voters have been considering ex-
panding public education benefits to the college level and ensuring
that every eligible student can attend a public college or university
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without having to worry about tuition. These considerations are
especially urgent, as college students today grapple with significantly
higher costs of attending school than the older generation of Ameri-
cans. According to a CNBC article by Emmie Martin, students attend-
ing a public university during the 2017–2018 school on average pay
tuition that has increased by 213 % since the 1987–1988 school year.
In private institutions, students on average have seen a 129% in-
crease in tuition costs. Collectively, American students are facing 1.4
trillion dollars in student loan debt, the only type of debt that cannot
be forgiven (see Martin 2017). For many students today, the decision
to continue with higher education hinges on the question of whether
or not the economic benefits of a degree will offset the debt of student
loan. For any student, perhaps excluding those from the most affluent
of families, the price tags associated with various institutions and pro-
grams are unaffordable and disheartening.
Although the rising costs of tuition are now affecting most
Americans, the economics of college has always been an issue for stu-
dents from the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Though education
has been heralded in the American society as the great equalizer, and
the first step a person from humble beginnings must take on the hier-
archy of social mobility, the reality of the results of higher education
tends to paint a more inequitable picture.
Research into how economic status affects students’ attainment,
selection, and use of college education reveal that people’s initial eco-
nomic identity has lasting implications on their lives. The work of
Marvin A. Titus examines how economic status contributes to stu-
dents’ abilities to complete their degrees. Titus’ conclusions are dis-
quieting, but unfortunately, they corroborate other reports about the
experiences of low socioeconomic status (SES) students in higher
education. According to his report, low SES students tend to earn
lower GPAs, do not declare majors as on time, are not as involved in
the campus community, have higher rates of unmet financial need,
and work more hours than their high SES counterparts (see Titus
2006, 388). Additionally, students from a more humble economic
background are more likely to be African American or Latinx (see
ibid.). This intersection of racial and economic marginalization prob-
ably leads to compounded stressors that deplete a student’s ability to
focus on school work and campus life.
Moreover, Titus’ study reveals that low SES students are prone
to enroll in less-selective institutions and institutions with less finan-
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cial resources (see ibid.). This implies that students who are already
economically disadvantaged are more likely to attend a school which
will have a limited ability to help such students meet their financial
needs. Additionally, though one can acquire good education at public
schools across the country, the fact that low SES students generally
attend less selective schools means that they are unexposed to the
connections and opportunities high SES students receive from at-
tending more selective, prestigious schools. Thus, higher SES stu-
dents, more often White students, on average benefit from family
wealth. As Titus writes:
»In addition to income, family wealth, which can be transferred across gen-
erations, provides an added degree of economic security for families to make
human capital investments (Becker, 1962) on behalf of their children, can be
a source of unearned income and may be used to accumulate cultural and
social capital (Orr, 2003).« (ibid., 393)
Overall, Titus finds that students from low SES backgrounds are less
likely to complete a bachelor’s degree (393).
The question of the equity of American higher education was
also taken up by Alexander W. Astin and Leticia Oseguera in their
paper The Declining »Equity« of Higher Education (2003). Astin and
Oseguera investigate whether the broadening of college attainment to
previously underrepresented groups after World War II—through
policies like the GI Bill, the Higher Education Act of 1965 (with
amendments in 1972) and increases in financial aid and affirmative
action—has actually increased social mobility in America. Astin and
Oseguera analyzed low SES students’ ability to enroll in the most
prestigious colleges and universities in the country, and thereby ac-
quire the full range of benefits such an institution can offer.
Only a few highly selective and elite schools exist, and society’s
perception of their reputations has remained relatively static over
time (Astin and Oseguera 2004, 325). This indicates that the asso-
ciated cultural capital which a student receives from attending a
highly selective institution may continue to benefit him or her
throughout life, in addition to the education he or she received. Astin
and Oseguera evaluated SES by a number of factors, including the
students’ parents’ income rate and level of education, and examined
trends from 1971 to 2000. The researchers found an increase in en-
rollment of high SES students (46 to 55 % of entering freshman); a
decrease in enrollment of middle SES students (41 to 33 % of enter-
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ing freshman); and nearly static enrollment of low SES students (9 to
13% of entering freshman) (see ibid., 329). These findings suggest
that the relatively minimal access to higher education that low SES
students have to selective schools has remained stagnant throughout
several decades, while students from middle SES backgrounds have
consistently been outpaced by high SES students (see ibid.). There-
fore, the inequality of access to a prestigious college has increased in
recent years, as overrepresentation tended toward high SES students.
These results are also telling when SES is weighed against par-
ental education level. Students whose parents had both attained a col-
lege degree represented 61.5 % of incoming freshman in 2000, com-
pared to only 9.1% of incoming freshman who were first-generation
college students. Moreover, while students who have one parent with
a college degree and one without made up nearly half of the student
population in 1971, that demographic is »… now outnumbered two to
one by students with highly educated parents« (see ibid., 331). Astin
and Oseguera note the fact that these changes may in part be because
a higher percentage of the whole population have attained higher
education when compared to the population in 1971 (see ibid., 332).
However, these findings suggest that the segments of the population
that had access to college education and social mobility in the past
have retained those advantages, at the increasingly higher expense
of people who had not been included in past expansions of educational
enfranchisement. Compared with first-generation students, students
with highly educated parents are 500 % more likely to enroll in a
selective university, and 300 % more likely to attend a selective uni-
versity when compared with students whose parents come from the
middle education background (see ibid., 333). The results of their re-
search lead Astin and Oseguera to conclude that the American higher
education system is presently more delineated along social class than
in the past decades and that access to the most selective colleges or
universities (and all that such institutions provide) is primarily de-
pendent on social class (see ibid., 338).
In understanding the implications of such socioeconomic strati-
fication, the work of MaryBeth Walpole examines the ways in which
cultural, social, and economic capital affect the behaviors, experiences,
and outcomes of low SES students who attend four-year universities.
Walpole approaches the issue of inequality not just from the perspec-
tive of whether low SES students can attain higher education, but
what these students do in the higher education environments, and
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how what they do affects their ability to collect cultural, social, and
economic capitals (see 2003, 50). The result of the study demonstrates
that that low SES students differ from their high SES peers in ways
other than wealth, and these differences hinder their social mobility,
regardless of a college degree. Walpole examined the behaviors of stu-
dents from different social classes in order to determine socioeco-
nomic-specific behavioral trends and outcomes. Low SES students
tend to be less involved in student groups and clubs on campus. Over
half of low SES students said they worked either 16+ hours a week or
full time while also attending school; and half of low SES students had
a GPA of B, with only 21 % reporting a GPA of B+ or higher, com-
pared to 40% of high SES students who maintained a B+ or higher
(see ibid., 55). Due to their economic identity, low SES students may
feel disconnected from campus life. They may work long hours which
take them off campus for significant amounts of time and may inhibit
a social life. This lack of security in the campus community could
then, in turn, hinder academic success.
Furthermore, low SES students are less likely to continue with
education after earning a bachelor’s degree and enter the workforce
earlier compared to their high SES counterparts. Walpole’s work in-
dicates that nine years after graduation, low SES students tend to
have lower levels of income and graduate school attendance than
wealthier students (see ibid., 56). Low SES students also are less likely
to obtain specialized professional degrees, like an M.D. or J.D., and
therefore individuals who have more humble material means are un-
derrepresented in these fields.
The findings of these various studies underscore the fact that
economic identity profoundly impacts the experiences low SES stu-
dents have with higher education. Though students from widely di-
vergent economic backgrounds have a chance to earn a college degree,
the types of institutions students attend, the degrees they receive, and
their ability to convert a college education into further schooling or
income suffer from great disparity. Students whose families are not
wealthy, or whose parents did not attend college, are less advantaged
when it comes to the college search and application process. Students
whose parents and older siblings are college educated have insider
knowledge regarding strategies for gaining entrance into selective
universities, which first-generation students do not have. They also
potentially benefit from legacy admissions, an advantage that is com-
pletely closed off to first-generation students. For example, students
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whose parents are alumni of, let’s say, Princeton University, may be
given priority by such an institution in the admission process.
Also significant is the fact that low SES students often must split
their time between working toward their degree and working for sup-
plemental income to make ends meet. The more hours a student must
work off campus, the fewer hours they have to devote to class time
and studies. Hence, these students have less time to spend toward
campus involvement and building social relationships, both of which
help to make students feel they belong to the college community. Re-
ception from peers and active engagement with student life are great
predictors of academic success. Therefore, students who must split
their time between the campus and the workplace may be detrimen-
tally disconnected from school.
Politicians who are in favor of free tuition for public colleges seek
to mitigate the effects of social class on college attainment. However,
as previously discussed, much of the disparity between low SES stu-
dents and high SES students occurs due to the selective practices of
the institutions they attend. Though free public tuition would allow
more people to attain higher education securely, such a policy would
likely not do much to offset the historically classist stratification of
colleges and universities regarding ranking and reputation.
Therefore, the most selective institutions must make efforts to
balance access for students from different economic backgrounds. A
type of affirmative action for low SES students may help to increase
admittance of these students. Additionally, the financial resources
these prestigious colleges and universities have can be refocused to-
wards helping low SES students meet their financial needs. These
schools could also use their funds to set up programs which seek to
recruit promising, yet financially unstable students, while they are
still in high school. They should provide these prospective college stu-
dents with clear and detailed information about various funding pos-
sibilities, which they may otherwise not know. Such policy shift
would require prestigious, private universities to commit sincerely
to creating greater economic equality in the enrollment process. Fa-
culty, staff, and students should be made aware of the diversity of
economic cultures on campus, so that low SES students do not feel
excluded in a traditionally affluent campus environment. However,
as long as the selectivity of an institution determines its reputation
and cultural benefits, these schools must make an effort to admit stu-
dents from working and middle-class backgrounds, even if doing so
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requires the more affluent to pay a little more money in tuition or
taxes. As Rawls’s difference principles warrants, some »inequality«
or perceived injustice may be acceptable, if the much talked about so-
cial mobility in America is to be realized.
Though strides have been made in American higher education to ex-
pand enfranchisement and diversity, a great deal of more work is still
needed. Significant issues determined by gender, race, and social class
remain impediments to student success. Notably, female students are
at an increased risk of harassment and assault; racial discrimination at
disheartening levels still victimizes students of color, and access to
selective institutions is mostly cut-off for students of color and stu-
dents from a low socioeconomic background. The mission to create
equity in education is one that is never-ending, and one that requires
the attention of every member of the society. Though those who have
been discriminated against in the past—and continue to face discrimi-
nation today—are aware of the causes of their marginalization and
are actively working against it, it is the responsibility of those with
more power and privilege (faculty, and administration, and the gov-
ernment) to continue to expand educational opportunities, and loudly
speak out against discrimination on their campuses. A group-blind
approach to accessibility issues is not going to provide us with sus-
tainable solutions. Just as the neutral, invisible hand of the markets
has continued to be absent in the distribution of wealth in America,
administrative or governmental efforts to create more access to col-
lege for various demographics of the society must transcend those
identities instead of masking them. Such measures must go beyond
being mere emblems of cultural appropriation to become more inclu-
sive. This way, college campuses can create spaces for open and safe
discourses about issues of justice, equity, and fairness, while also pro-
moting policies that lead to further inclusion and representation. As
diversity engenders both opportunities and challenges across college
and university campuses in America, cultural and economic identities
remain at the front and center of the debate.
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1We are grateful to Dr. Austin Okigbo (University of Colorado, Boulder) and Dr.
Uchenna Okeja (Rhodes University, South Africa) for their invaluable sugges-
100 psycho—logik 13
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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An analysis of three decades of data from national samples of entering college freshmen reveals that (a) there are substantial socioeconomic inequities in access to the most selective U.S. colleges and universities and that (b) American higher education is more socioeconomically stratified today than at any time during the past three decades. The increasing concentration of high-SES students in the most selective institutions appears to have come primarily at the expense of middle-SES students.
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This study investigated college experiences and outcomes for low and high SES students utilizing data from a longitudinal database. Low SES students engaged in fewer extracurricular activities, worked more, studied less, and reported lower GPAs than their high SES peers. Nine years after entering college, the low SES students had lower incomes, educational attainment, and graduate school attendance than high SES students. These experiential and outcome differences are tied to differences in cultural capital and habitus.
For more than 50 years, college and high school students, families, and community activists have fought for the preservation of ethnic studies. Qualitative research studies consistently have shown positive outcomes, including increased academic engagement and affirmation, for students who take ethnic studies in K-16. In this article, I argue that Latina/o students who enrolled in ethnic studies courses benefited academically and personally from culturally responsive pedagogies. The portraits presented in this article are part of a larger ethnographic study of the schooling experiences of Latina/o students. Data were collected from in-depth, semi-structured interviews, and field notes at two universities. Findings show that the students’ experiences in the courses served as sitio y lengua [a space and a language/discourse] in which they experienced:(1) intersecting sitios of home and school pedagogies; (2) (re)claimed an academic space and identity; and (3) (re)defined and (re)connected the boundaries of community space. Ultimately, this article advocates for the expansion of ethnic studies.
Sexual assault is a pervasive problem on university and college campuses in the United States that has garnered growing national attention, particularly in the past year. This is the first study to systematically review and synthesize prevalence findings from studies on campus sexual assault (CSA) published since 2000 (n = 34). The range of prevalence findings for specific forms of sexual victimization on college campuses (i.e., forcible rape, unwanted sexual contact, incapacitated rape, sexual coercion, and studies' broad definitions of CSA/rape) is provided, and methodological strengths and limitations in the empirical body of research on CSA are discussed. Prevalence findings, research design, methodology, sampling techniques, and measures, including the forms of sexual victimization measured, are presented and evaluated across studies. Findings suggest that unwanted sexual contact appears to be most prevalent on college campuses, including sexual coercion, followed by incapacitated rape, and completed or attempted forcible rape. Additionally, several studies measured broad constructs of sexual assault that typically include combined forms of college-based sexual victimization (i.e., forcible completed or attempted rape, unwanted sexual contact, and/or sexual coercion). Extensive variability exists within findings for each type of sexual victimization measured, including those that broadly measure sexual assault, which is largely explained by differences in sampling strategies and overall study designs as well as measures of sexual assault used in studies. Implications for findings and recommendations for future research on the prevalence of college-based sexual victimization are provided.
This qualitative study examines the role familismo (Marín & Marín, 1991) played in 20 Latina/o high school seniors' college choices. Familismo is the tendency to hold the wants and needs of family in higher regard than one's own and has been considered a common trait of Latina/o families. Interviews with students and secondary school counselors revealed this trait may be a common value upheld by Latina/o families but is also a reflection of structural forces outside the family unit. Findings highlight ways students negotiated the options of attending a university close to home to benefit from familial support and/or financially contribute to the family; leaving the region for college in order to ensure a "better life" for themselves and their families; or compromising by beginning at a regional institution and later transferring to another university. High school personnel, and others assisting Latina/os with their college choices should consider such findings.