Widening participation initiatives and the experience of underrepresented students at three elite institutions: a comparative study
Friend, Katherine Louise
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This nested multi-site case study uses data from interviews with thirty underrepresented students to explore how these students experience elite universities. Although greater numbers of underrepresented students are enrolling in university than ever before, those from non-traditional backgrounds are largely excluded from elite universities. Elite universities in the United States, England, and Scotland are all striving for increasingly higher levels of excellence, status, and funding to raise and maintain their global positions as university rankings continue to affect student choice and perception of value. The expansion of higher education during the past several decades has fostered discussions pertaining to the social characteristics of the student body, and whether enough is being done to include individuals traditionally excluded from higher education. Simply developing widening participation initiatives, however, does not eliminate inequality in the university system. This thesis considers discussions relating to higher education expansion, development of widening participation policy, costs associated with higher education, and the social characteristics and constructions of the underrepresented student in the three nations. The four key findings resulting from the student interviews are organised into the three themes of economic, social, and cultural capital. The first finding was that the students who lacked accessible economic capital were unable to participate in social events. The inability to participate produced feelings of exclusion. The second key finding was that students who were most debt averse reported the least amount of debt. This debt aversion meant some students worked nearly full-time or strictly managed their income. The third key finding was that students who were able to minimise their social and cultural differences, such as changing their accent, were more likely to report feelings of belonging. The fourth key finding was that, although the widening participation policy agenda focuses predominately on economic disadvantage and access, very little attention is given to elite universities’ habitus, which perpetuate privilege and complicate feelings of belonging. One of the most pronounced areas for further research that has come out of this study is whether the fear of stigmatisation in identifying widening participation students outweighs the potential benefits in acknowledging and creating a community for those students. Ultimately, the hope of this study is that, by understanding the experiences of such students who gain access to an elite university, we can learn from their experiences and how, moving forward, not only help a greater number of underrepresented students to attend these elite universities, but also support those students throughout their university years.