Book by Ann L. Mullen
Review by Mr. Adrian H. Huerta, M.A.
Ph.D. student, Higher Education & Organizational Change
University of California, Los Angeles

Degrees of inequality: Culture, class, and gender in American Higher Education by Ann L. Mullen captures the narrative of 100 upperclassmen attending Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU). Although 2 miles separate the institutions, the student trajectories into their institutions are worlds apart.  Yale University is a highly selective liberal arts institution.  SCSU is a comprehensive institution with a four-year graduation rate that hovers around 15 percent (National Center for Educational Statistics, Fall 2010). The influence of family, economic status, various forms of social and culture capital impact the students’ decisions whether to invest in their pre-college educational experiences.  The six chapters of this book are organized into Yale and Southern, The High School Years, Deciding to Go to College, Choosing Colleges, Going to College, Majors and Knowledge.  These sections demonstrate how students and their social spheres influence and impact their ambitions and academic habitus.      

This book provides a perspective of students from two sides of the social and cultural continuum.  The students attending SCSU are typically first-generation and low-income college students who see their education as preparation for a particular vocational career as teachers and social workers.  Their counterparts enrolled at Yale experience their undergraduate studies as preparation for advanced education and as a gateway to maintaining their privileged social and economic positions.  The students from each institution elaborate on the various levels of support from their peers, educators, and families in either promoting or stunting college-going behaviors.  Mullen states, “the [SCSU] students underestimated their own academic abilities…when their families and teachers were less involved in their academic progress.” (113). 

Academic advisors can benefit from the examining why students pursue postsecondary education.  Some students are seeking financial stability, others intellectual growth, and some to have promising career prospective when compared to their parents.  Many of the students enrolled in SCSU stated they didn’t want to work in factories or other blue-collar industries like their parents.  As we cultivate relationships with students, we must remember each student’s context for postsecondary education may not mirror our beliefs.  This is especially relevant as more students are returning to higher education because of the economic climate.  Mullen (2010) asserts students enrolled in less-selective institutions attribute “cost and convenience” in selecting a college or university.  While, the Yale students have access to “extensive knowledge base [for college information from] their immediate families, relatives, guidance counselors, teachers, and friends.” (Mullen, 2010, pg. 111), which alleviates stress and provides a secure path to a highly-selective college or university. 

Although Mullen concludes her book with a despairing conclusion that most postsecondary institutions admissions and tuition costs are a reoccurring obstacle for low-income and first-generation college students.  As advisors, we should be vigilant in supporting students whose academic trajectories and the kind of support and guidance needed for degree completion.  This book provides advisors a view of students from low- and upper-income and first-generation backgrounds. 

Degrees of inequality: Culture, class, and gender in American higher education (2010). Book by Ann L. Mullen. Review by Mr. Adrian H. Huerta, M.A. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. $50.00. P. 264.  ISBN 978-0-8018-9770-2

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