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Researcher examines how social status affects post-secondary education choices

Social sciences professor Ann Mullen explores how students make decisions about pursuing post-secondary education. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Anjum Nayyar

Universities like U of T can offer great depth and breadth of experience to students looking for a place to call their home base after high school. But there are many factors in play when high school students assess their options for higher education these days.

Where will they go, what degree will they choose, and why? Those are the central questions guiding the research of Professor Ann Mullen of sociology at U of T Scarborough. She explores how students make decisions at each major educational crossroads and then make sense of their own positions in the hierarchy of higher education. Her work traces the connections between post-secondary choices and experiences and socioeconomic status and gender.

In her recent research, Mullen took a close look at the educational experiences of undergraduate students at two American universities: 50 students at Yale, an elite, Ivy League university, and 50 students at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), a moderately selective public university. She asked students questions about their high school experiences, how they decided to go to university, and how they chose an institution. She then focused on their academic and extracurricular activities during university, their job aspirations and their plans to continue education beyond the bachelor’s degree.

Mullen, who received her PhD at Yale, found that even though the two institutions in her study were located less than two miles away from one another, the student experiences were worlds apart. Students attending Yale come mostly from highly privileged backgrounds, while half the students at SCSU come from families where neither parent had attained a bachelor’s degree.

“The students that went to Southern Connecticut generally had been disengaged with their high school experiences and learning in general had become a chore to them. I found that troubling. In contrast, about half of the Yale students went to elite private high schools, so they came from incredibly enriched learning environments where they almost couldn’t help but do well.”

Her research reveals not only the way social background influences how students do academically but also how they view their education.

“Students who are the first in their families to go to university generally approach education from a practical, applied perspective. They want concrete skills that will prepare them for specific occupations. Privileged students more often view their education from a liberal arts perspective, appreciating learning for its own sake, in part because they are more likely to go into a graduate or professional program after their bachelor’s.”

She also said that despite progress made by women when it comes to education, there are still significant gender divides at universities. “Even though women are now the majority of undergraduates in both countries, the fields that men and women choose continue to differ dramatically.”

These differences contribute to gender inequalities in the labour market. Even with the same amount of education, men still get jobs with better pay and higher status.”

Based on her research, Mullen said much of the motivation to expand higher education in the U.S. and Canada has been based on notions of equity of access and ensuring avenues for social mobility. However, these efforts alone can’t rectify social inequality.

“On one hand, getting a four-year degree is the best way of guaranteeing you’re going to get ahead. But in the U.S., the education system has expanded radically over the last half-century and yet levels of social inequality haven’t changed much. There are limitations to expansion of higher education as a means for ameliorating social inequalities. The name of the university on your diploma makes a huge difference.”

Mullen said the types of students admitted and their focus has an impact on the university; U of T is a perfect example.

“In the five years I’ve been here, the Scarborough enrolment has grown by about 25 per cent,” she said. “Because most students from high socioeconomic status backgrounds are already going to university, enrolment growth mostly draws in students from less privileged backgrounds. These students tend to want a more applied education, often creating a tension between the liberal arts aims of the institution and the goals of the students.”

Mullen’s research will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in a new book due out later this year. It is tentatively titled Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class and Gender in American Higher Education.

© University of Toronto Scarborough