Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Contextual Influences on Parental Involvement in College Going: Variations by Socioeconomic Class

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Contextual Influences on Parental Involvement in College Going: Variations by Socioeconomic Class

Article excerpt

College enrollment rates vary systematically based on income and socioeconomic status (SES), with lower enrollment rates for lower-income students and students with lower SES than for their higher-income and SES peers (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2001). Although college enrollment rates increased for all groups over the past three decades, the gap in these rates between students from low-income families and those from high-income families was the same size in 1997 as in 1970 (32 percentage points; Fitzgerald & Delaney, 2002). Using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), Cabrera and La Nasa (2001) found that, after controlling for relevant variables, college application rates were 26 percentage points lower for students with low socioeconomic status than for those with high socioeconomic status. These differential application and enrollment rates are especially disconcerting at a time when there are widening gaps in income and health insurance benefits between high school and college graduates (Baum & Ma, 2007).

One source of differences across groups in college-related outcomes may be the degree of parental involvement. Research shows that parental involvement is positively related to college aspirations and enrollment (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Horn, 1998; Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999; Perna, 2000), as well as to measures of academic preparation for college (Lee, 1993; Muller, 1993; Zick, Bryant, & Osterbacka, 2001). But involvement is often limited for low-income parents by economic, social, and psychological barriers (Furstenberg, Cook, Eccles, Elder, & Sameroff, 1999; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1997; Perna, 2004).

Although prior research sheds light on the relationship between parental involvement and college opportunity, as Perna and Titus (2005) argue, research on the contribution of parental involvement to college opportunity is limited in several ways. First, with only a few exceptions, quantitative research typically operationalizes parental involvement using a narrow set of indicators that focus on quantity rather than quality of different types of involvement. Second, while Perna and Titus use multilevel modeling to demonstrate the relationship between both student-and school-level measures of parental involvement and college enrollment, few researchers examine how parental involvement is shaped by school structures and, conversely, how school efforts to promote college opportunity are shaped by parental involvement. Finally, while some research explores racial/ethnic group differences in the relationship between parental involvement and college enrollment (e.g., Perna & Titus, 2005), little is known about variations in the relationship based on socioeconomic status.

This study addresses these knowledge gaps by drawing on a multilevel model of college enrollment (Perna, 2006) and multiple descriptive case studies of 15 high schools. The study describes how parental involvement not only is shaped by the school context but also shapes the school context for college opportunity. The study also describes the ways other aspects of context, particularly the higher education context and the state and economic context, shape parental involvement. Although parental encouragement and involvement appear to be important facilitators of college enrollment, this study describes the barriers that limit parental involvement not only for low-SES parents but also for middle-SES parents. "Shape" is used throughout this article as a term to describe the multiple ways that aspects of context influence, and are influenced by, parental involvement.

Conceptual Framework

Based on a review and synthesis of prior research, the conceptual model (Perna, 2006) draws on multiple theoretical perspectives and assumes that students' college-related decisions are shaped by multiple layers of context. The model assumes that the most important student-level predictors of college enrollment are academic preparation and achievement, financial resources, knowledge about college, and family support (Perna, 2006). …

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