Race, Gender and Perceived Barriers: How Beliefs About the Opportunity Structure Shape Postsecondary Pathways

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Despite the positive benefits of higher education and policy efforts to reduce barriers, opportunities for college access are still not equitably distributed (Perna 2006). An overwhelming body of research reveals several troubling trends in college going, student persistence, and degree attainment. Black, Hispanic and low-income students are less likely to attend college than whites. When they do make it onto postsecondary education, Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented at the most selective and well-funded institutions (Carnevale and Strohl 2013). This is troubling because full-time students at elite universities are twice as likely to graduate within six years as their counterparts at less selective institutions, according to a 2011 report from Complete College America. Because degree attainment can be very consequential for later outcomes in life, the seeming immutability of racial and socioeconomic gaps in college access is perhaps one of the most pressing issues in the United States. This dissertation explores how the process of college entry varies across race, gender and socioeconomic status. In particular, I examine an overlooked factor in the literature on college going by focusing on the role of anticipated barriers to upward mobility in the process of educational attainment. To do this, the dissertation draws on nationally representative data from the US Department of Education’s High School Longitdinal Study of 2009 (HSLS:09). The first chapter explores group differences in students’ perceptions of barriers around affordability, accessibility and achievability. The second chapter investigates the relationship between perceptions of limited opportunity and college seeking behaviors. The third chapter assesses whether there are racial differences in the implications of perceived barriers for college seeking. I find that beliefs about the opportunity structure matter differently for various groups, are consequential for the decisions students make about whether and how to invest in education and represent a key dimension of the status attainment process.






Jefferson, Steven (2020). Race, Gender and Perceived Barriers: How Beliefs About the Opportunity Structure Shape Postsecondary Pathways. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21029.


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