College Chutes and Ladders: How Undergraduates Navigate Contingencies and Institutional Demands
Sherelle Ferguson

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Pennsylvania

Primary Discipline

Whether we look at academic performance or retention and graduation rates, less economically advantaged students and black, Latino, and Native American students do not fare as well as their peers. Researchers have pursued a number of explanations including income disparities, academic underpreparation, and students’ resilience in the face of challenges. While each of these factors are important, they primarily focus on individual attributes. Yet, success in college partly depends upon how educational institutions reward students’ activation of social and cultural resources. As such, this study investigates how undergraduates’ ability to employ cultural knowledge and mobilize their social networks shapes their academic trajectory.Over two years, I conducted ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews with a socioeconomically and racially diverse sample of undergraduates and university staff at “Sullivan University”, a private four-year college. I analyze how undergraduates problem-solve in order to reveal contingencies in the transmission of inequality. Further, this study highlights the “rules of the game”—organizational procedures and informal norms—to analyze how students’ cultural repertoires align with institutional demands. This study contributes to higher education and stratification literature by revealing various pathways to reproduction and mobility while identifying the role of universities’ organizational procedures in students’ successes and failures. Investigating how individuals manage institutional demands is part of answering the evergreen question: Who is successful here and why? This question becomes ever more important for postsecondary education as the cost of tuition skyrockets and returns to a college degree increase.
About Sherelle Ferguson
Sherelle Ferguson is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests revolve around stratification and mobility in educational institutions with a focus on the role of cultural processes and social network inequality. Specifically, she studies how class-based and race-based cultural and social resources shape how individuals navigate institutional standards. Her dissertation uses qualitative methods to investigate how non-economic factors contribute to inequality in higher education. Prior to her doctoral studies, Sherelle taught high school history at a charter school in Massachusetts. She holds an A.B. in Social Studies from Harvard University and an Ed.M from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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