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Helping or hurting? Can institutions help disadvantaged students in engineering without understanding socioeconomic status?

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Institutional Perspectives and Boundary Work

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.657.1 - 23.657.9



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Paper Authors


Valerie C. Lundy-Wagner New York University

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Dr. Lundy-Wagner’s is an Assistant Professor in the Higher & Postsecondary Education Program at New York University. In general, her research focuses on how institutions of higher education can improve degree completion, with an emphasis on ethnicity/race, gender, and social class. Her recent work in focuses on socioeconomic status, academic advising, and student outcomes in engineering and other fields. She received her B.S. in Civil & Environmental Engineering at UCLA, master's in Education at Stanford, and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Higher Education.

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Helping or hurting? Can institutions help disadvantaged students in engineering without understanding socioeconomic status?Over the past fifty years, there has been increasing attention to pursuing social justice throughengineering education. While much of that work has focused on increasing participation by womenand ethnic/racial minorities in the various engineering disciplines, some scholars have begun toconsider socioeconomic status and social class. Given the aggregate gains by women inengineering, and problems with racial categorization in the recent anti-affirmative action era (post-1996), engineering stakeholders interested in promoting equality have turned to social class as away to reposition the diversity discussion. However, while engineering education scholars haveundoubtedly begun to use measures of social class in their work more frequently (e.g., Donaldson,Lichtenstein & Sheppard, 2008; Ohland et al., 2012; Orr et al., 2011), it is unclear as to whether ornot engineering schools understand the practical implications of having socioeconomicallydisadvantaged students present.To better understand how engineering schools make sense of socioeconomic status, a singleinstitution study of academic advisers was conducted. The research question guiding this work was:How do academic advisers characterize socioeconomic status and the institutional support availableto students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds? This study was framed by Bourdieu’s (1973,1977, 1986) theory of social reproduction and the concept of cultural capital.Social class is often measured by socioeconomic status, an index including parent income, parenteducation level, and parent occupation. As noted by Bourdieu and Passeron (1977), socioeconomicstatus is an essential ingredient for understanding how students navigate schools via cultural capital.As he describes, cultural capital refers to knowledge, cultural awareness, credentials, preferences,skills, abilities, and mannerisms that are typically acquired in the home through parents(Bourdieu, 1986). Thus, students from higher income households, with college educated parentswho have prestigious jobs are more likely to have the expectations, attitudes, preferences, academicpreparation, and confidence necessary for choosing engineering and successfully navigating collegein comparison to students whose parents did not attend or finish college, have low-incomes, andhold relatively less prestigious jobs.Drawing on in-depth interviews with 9 (of 18) engineering academic advisers a one university in theeastern United States, the author identified two important findings. First, engineering advisers havea limited understanding of socioeconomic status and social class. For example, most advisersattributed socioeconomic disadvantage with financial need, neglecting to consider non-monetarycomponents (i.e., having trouble engaging faculty or asking for help, not internalizing the relevanceof support structures on-campus). Second, most engineering advisers were hesitant to acknowledgeperceived background differences among students, instead preferring to emphasize that moststudents were academically capable, and that their job was to divert references to personal,emotional, familial or financial issues to other offices. Thus, despite research on the utility ofacademic advising as a retention tool (e.g., Bullard, 2008; Levin & Hussey, 2007), its relevance forsocioeconomically disadvantaged engineering students remains unknown because of institutionaldisregard for understanding how socioeconomic status or social class manifest.

Lundy-Wagner, V. C. (2013, June), Helping or hurting? Can institutions help disadvantaged students in engineering without understanding socioeconomic status? Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19671

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