Social Class and Elite University Education: A Bourdieusian Analysis

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



The United States experienced a tremendous expansion of higher education after the Second World War. However, this expansion has not led to a substantial reduction to class inequalities at elite universities, where the admissions process is growing even more selective. In his classic studies of French education and society, Pierre Bourdieu explains how schools can contribute to the maintenance and reproduction of class inequalities. Bourdieu's concepts have stimulated much research in American sociology. However, quantitative applications have underappreciated important concepts and aspects of Bourdieu's theory and have generally ignored college life and achievement. With detailed survey and institutional data of students at elite, private universities, this dissertation addresses a gap in the literature with an underexplored theoretical approach.

First, I examine the class structure of elite universities. I argue that latent clustering analysis improves on Bourdieu's statistical approach, as well as locates class fractions that conventional schemas fail to appreciate. Nearly half of students have dominant class origins, including three fractions - professionals, executives and precarious professionals - that are distinguishable by the volume and composition of cultural and economic capital. Working class students remain severely underrepresented at elite, private universities. Second, I explore two types of social capital on an elite university campus. In its practical or immediate state, social capital exists as the resources embedded in networks. I explore the effects of extensive campus networks, and find that investments in social capital facilitate college achievement and pathways to professional careers. As an example of institutionalized social capital, legacies benefit from an admissions preference for applicants with family alumni ties. Legacies show a distinct profile of high levels of economic and cultural capital, but lower than expected achievement. Legacies activate their social capital across the college years, from college admissions to the prevalent use of personal contacts for plans after graduation.

Third, I examine how social class affects achievement and campus life across the college years, and the extent to which cultural capital mediates the link between class and academic outcomes. From first semester grades to graduation honors, professional and middle class students have higher levels of achievement in comparison to executive or subordinate class students. The enduring executive-professional gap suggests contrasting academic orientations for two dominant class fractions, while the underperformance of subordinate class students is due to differences in financial support, a human capital deficit early in college, and unequal access to "collegiate" cultural capital. Collegiate capital includes the implicit knowledge that facilitates academic success and encourages a satisfying college experience. Subordinate class students are less likely to participate in many popular aspects of elite campus life, including fraternity or sorority membership, study abroad, and drinking alcohol. Additionally, two common activities among postsecondary students - participating in social and recreational activities and changing a major field early in college - are uniquely troublesome for subordinate class students. Overall, I conclude that Bourdieu provides a unique and useful perspective for understanding educational inequalities at elite universities in the United States.






Martin, Nathan Douglas (2010). Social Class and Elite University Education: A Bourdieusian Analysis. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.