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Information Is Not Enough: Cultural Capital, Cultural Capital Translators, and College Access for Disadvantaged Students (WP-11-04)

James Rosenbaum and Michelle Naffziger

Taken-for-granted aspects of the college application process present serious cultural barriers to disadvantaged students. Analyzing ethnographic data collected at two low-income, public high schools, this working paper seeks to understand subtle cultural elements that impede disadvantaged students, how school staff in a new program try to identify and overcome these cultural barriers, and how students respond. Consistent with cultural capital theory, these staff act as “cultural capital translators” to help students acquire subtle, taken-for-granted information and skills that colleges require, and help them overcome barriers to college-related activities. The researchers find that students have difficulties with three cultural tasks in the college application process—seeing the pros and cons of the various college options, knowing how to identify which options match their own interests and needs, and knowing which attributes colleges value in admissions and how to present themselves accordingly. They consider how cultural capital translators help students understand these requirements and overcome the associated barriers, and implications for policy reforms to improve college access.

James Rosenbaum, Professor of Education and Social Policy and Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Michelle Naffziger, Doctoral Student, Northwestern University

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