Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-m42fx Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-22T20:48:22.493Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

When Poor Students Attend Rich Schools: Do Affluent Social Environments Increase or Decrease Participation?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 May 2020


College is a key pathway to political participation, and lower-income individuals especially stand to benefit from it given their lower political participation. However, rising inequality makes college disproportionately more accessible to high-income students. One consequence of inequality is a prevalence of predominantly affluent campuses. Colleges are thus not insulated from the growing concentration of affluence in American social spaces. We ask how affluent campus spaces affect college’s ability to equalize political participation. Predominantly affluent campuses may create participatory norms that especially elevate low-income students’ participation. Alternatively, they may create affluence-centered social norms that marginalize these students, depressing their participation. A third possibility is equal effects, leaving the initial gap unchanged. Using a large panel survey (201,011 students), controls on many characteristics, and tests for selection bias, we find that predominantly affluent campuses increase political participation to a similar extent for all income groups, thus leaving the gap unchanged. We test psychological, academic, social, political, financial, and institutional mechanisms for the effects. The results carry implications for the self-reinforcing link between inequality and civic institutions.

© American Political Science Association 2020

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.


Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

They gratefully acknowledge data from UCLA HERI’s CIRP, and support from Russell Sage Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and from Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics, Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, and University Center for Human Values. For research assistance they thank Lisa Argyle, Furman Haynes, Anne McDonough, Hannah Schoen, Matt Tokeshi, and Lucy Xu.


Anderson, Nick. 2017. “Pell Grant Shares at Top-Ranked Colleges: A Sortable Chart.” Washington Post, October 31 ( Scholar
Aries, Elizabeth, and Seider, Maynard. 2005. “The Interactive Relationship between Class Identity and the College Experience: The Case of Lower Income Students.” Qualitative Sociology 28(4): 419–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Hamilton, Laura T.. 2013. Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Astin, Alexander W. 1993. What Matters in College: Four Critical Years Revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
Bailey, Martha J., and Dynarski, Susan M.. 2011. “Gains and Gaps: Changing Inequality in U.S. College Entry and Completion.” In Whither Opportunity: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, ed. Duncan, Greg J. and Murnane, Richard J., 117132. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Bartels, Brandon L. 2015. “Beyond ‘Fixed versus Random Effects’: A Framework for Improving Substantive and Statistical Analysis of Panel, TSCS, and Multilevel Data.” In Quantitative Research in Political Science, ed. Franzese, Robert J.. New York: Sage.Google Scholar
Bartels, Larry M. 2008. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Berinsky, Adam J., and Lenz, Gabriel S.. 2011. “Education and Political Participation: Exploring the Causal Link.” Political Behavior 33(3): 357–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Nice, Richard. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Passeron, Jean-Claude. 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, ed. Nice, Richard. 2d ed. London, UK: Sage.Google Scholar
Bowen, William G., Kurzweil, Martin A., Tobin, Eugene M., and Pichler, Susanne C.. 2005. Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.Google Scholar
Broton, Katherine, Frank, Victoria, and Goldrick-Rab, Sara. 2014. “Safety, Security, and College Attainment: An Investigation of Undergraduates’ Basic Needs and Institutional Response.” Presented at the annual meetings of the Association for Public Policy and Management, October 2014.Google Scholar
Butler, Daniel E. 2014. Representing the Advantaged: How Politicians Reinforce Inequality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campbell, David. 2006. Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Campbell, David 2008. “Voice in the Classroom: How an Open Classroom Climate Fosters Political Engagement among Adolescents.” Political Behavior 30(4): 437–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Campbell, David 2009. “Civic Engagement and Education: An Empirical Test of The Sorting Model.” American Journal of Political Science 53(4): 771–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Card, David. 1995. “Using Geographic Variation in College Proximity to Estimate the Return to Schooling.” In Aspects of Labor Market Behaviour: Essays in Honour of John Vanderkamp, ed. Christofides, Loizos Nicolaou, Grant, E. Kenneth, and Swindinsky, R. Toronto, CA: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
Carnes, Nicholas. 2013. White-Collar Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Card, David 2018 The Cash Ceiling: Why Only the Rich Run for Office—and What We Can Do about It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Charles, Camille Z., Fischer, Mary J., Mooney, Margarita A., and Massey, Douglas S.. 2009. Taming the River: Negotiating the Academic, Financial, and Social Currents in Selective Colleges and Universities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Chetty, Raj, Friedman, John N., Saez, Emmanuel, Turner, Nicholas, and Yagan, Danny. 2017. “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility.” Working Paper 23618. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cohen, Aaron, Vigoda, Eran, and Samorly, Aliza. 2001. “Analysis of the Mediating Effect of Personal‐Psychological Variables on the Relationship between Socioeconomic Status and Political Participation: A Structural Equations Framework.” Political Psychology 22(4): 727–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Crocker, Jennifer, and Major, Brenda. 1989. “Social Stigma and Self-Esteem: The Self-Protective Properties of Stigma.” Psychological Review 96:608–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dey, Eric L. 1996. “Undergraduate Political Attitudes: An Examination of Peer, Faculty, and Social Influences.” Research in Higher Education 37(5): 535–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
DiMaggio, Paul. 1982. “Cultural Capital and School Success: The Impact of Status Culture Participation on the Grades of U.S. High School Students.” American Sociological Review 47(2): 189201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Franko, William W., Kelly, Nathan J., and Witko, Christopher. 2016. “Class Bias in Voter Turnout, Representation, and Income Inequality.” Perspectives on Politics 14(2): 351–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Galston, William A. 2001. “Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education.” American Review of Political Science 4(1): 217–34.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gause, LaGina. 2016. “The Advantage of Disadvantage: Legislative Responsiveness to Collective Action by the Politically Marginalized.” PhD dissertation, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.Google Scholar
Gelman, Andrew, and Hill, Jennifer. 2007. Data Analysis Using Multilevel/ Hierarchical Models. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Giles, Michael W., and Dantico, Marilyn K.. 1982. “Political Participation and Neighborhood Social Context Revisited.” American Journal of Political Science 26(1): 144–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gilens, Martin. 2012. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Glynn, Carroll J., Huge, Michael E., and Lunney, Carol A.. 2009. “The Influence of Perceived Social Norms on College Students’ Intention to Vote.” Political Communication 26(1): 4864.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldrick-Rab, Sara. 2016. Paying the Price. Chicago: Chicago University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hainmueller, Jens, Mummolo, Jonathan, and Xu, Yiqing. 2019. “How Much Should We Trust Estimates from Multiplicative Interaction Models? Simple Tools to Improve Empirical Practice.” Political Analysis 27(2): 163-92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hajnal, Zoltan, and Trounstine, Jessica. 2005. “Where Turnout Matters: The Consequences of Uneven Turnout in City Politics.” Journal of Politics 67(2): 515–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Havemann, Robert, and Wilson, Katherine. 2007. “Access, Matriculation, and Graduation.” In Economic Inequality and Higher Education: Access, Persistence, and Successes, ed. Dickert-Collin, Stacy and Rubenstein, Ross, 1743. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Henderson, John, and Chatfield, Sara. 2011. “Who Matches? Propensity Scores and Bias in the Causal Effects of Education on Participation.” Journal of Politics 73(3): 646–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Huckfeldt, R. Robert. 1979. “Political Participation and the Neighborhood Social Context.” American Journal of Political Science 23(3): 579–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Highton, Benjamin, and Wolfinger, Raymond E.. 2001. “The First Seven Years of the Political Life Cycle.” American Journal of Political Science 45(1): 202–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hill, Kim Quaile, and Leighley, Jan E.. 1992. “The Policy Consequences of Class Bias in State Electorates.” American Journal of Political Science 36(2): 351–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hillygus, D. Sunshine. 2005. “The Missing Link: Exploring the Relationship between Higher Education and Political Behavior.” Political Behavior 27(1): 2547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hillygus, D. Sunshine., Holbein, John B., and Snell, Steven. 2015. “The Nitty Gritty: The Unexplored Role of Grit and Perseverance in Political Participation.” Scholar
Hurtado, Sylvia, Saenz, Victor, Denson, Nida, Locks, Angela M., and Oseguera, Leticia. 2005. “Political Attitudes and Voting Behavior: Predicting the Potential Influence of Young Voters in the 2004 Elections.” Presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada, April 11–15.Google Scholar
Jack, Anthony Abraham. 2014. “Culture Shock Revisited: The Social and Cultural Contingencies to Class Marginality.” Sociological Forum 29(2): 453–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Johnson, Sarah E., Richeson, Jennifer A., and Finkel, Eli J.. 2011. “Middle Class and Marginal? Socioeconomic Status, Stigma, and Self-Regulation at an Elite University.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100(5): 838–52.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kam, Cindy D., and Palmer, Carl L.. 2008. “Reconsidering the Effects of Education on Political Participation.” Journal of Politics 70(3): 612–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kelly, Nathan J., and Enns, Peter K.. 2010. “Inequality and the Dynamics of Public Opinion: The Self-Reinforcing Link between Economic Inequality and Mass Preferences.” American Journal of Political Science 54(4): 855–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kraus, Michael W., Piff, Paul K., and Keltner, Dacher. 2011. “Social Class as Culture: The Convergence of Resources and Rank in the Social Realm.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 20(4): 246–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kraus, Michael W., Rheinschmidt, Michelle, and Piff, Paul. 2012. “The Intersection of Resources and Rank.” In Facing Social Class: How Societal Rank Influences Interaction, ed. Fiske, Susan and Markus, Hazel Rose, 152172. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Lamont, Michele, and Molnar, Virag. 2002. “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences.” Annual Review of Sociology 28(1): 167–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lareau, Annette. 2011. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lerman, Amy E., and Weaver, Vesla. 2014. Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mendelberg, Tali, McCabe, Katherine, and Thal, Adam. 2017. “College Socialization and the Economic Views of Affluent Americans.” American Journal of Political Science 61(3): 606–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mettler, Suzanne. 2014. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Mettler, Suzanne, and Soss, Joe. 2004. “The Consequences of Public Policy for Democratic Citizenship: Bridging Policy Studies and Mass Politics.” Perspectives on Politics 2(1): 5573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Miler, Kristina C. 2018. Poor Representation: Congress and the Politics of Poverty in the United States. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nall, Clayton. 2018. The Road to Inequality: How the Federal Highway Program Polarized America and Undermined Cities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Nickerson, David W. 2008. “Is Voting Contagious? Evidence from Two Field Experiments.” American Political Science Review 102(1): 4957.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Niemi, Richard G., and Junn, Jane. 1998. Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Nie, Norman H., Junn, Jane, and Stehlik-Barry, Kenneth. 1996. Education and Democratic Citizenship in America. Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar
Pascarella, Ernest T., Pierson, Christopher T., Wolniak, Gregory C., and Terenzini, Patrick T.. 2004. “First-Generation College Students: Additional Evidence on College Experiences and Outcomes.” Journal of Higher Education 75(3): 249–84.Google Scholar
Pascarella, Ernest T., and Terenzini, Patrick T.. 2005. How College Affects Students. Vol. 2. Ed. Kenneth A. Feldman. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
Putnam, Robert D. 2015. Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
Reardon, Sean F. 2011. “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap Between the Rich and the Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations.” In Whither Opportunity? ed. Duncan, Greg J. and Murnane, Richard J.. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Russell, Ann Marie T, and Fiske, Susan T.. 2008. “It’s All Relative: Competition and Status Drive Interpersonal Perception.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38(7): 1193–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sacerdote, Bruce. 2011. “Peer Effects in Education: How Might They Work, How Big They Are and How Much We Know Thus Far?” In Handbook of Economics of Education, Vol. 3, ed. Hanushek, Eric A., Machin, Stephen J., and Woessman, Ludger. San Diego: North Holland.Google Scholar
Sax, Linda J. 2000. “Citizenship Development and the American College Student.” In Higher Education and Civic Responsibility, ed. Ehlrich, T., 318. Phoenix: Oryx Press.Google Scholar
Schlozman, Kay, Verba, Sidney, and Brady, Henry E.. 2012. The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sears, David O., and Funk, Carolyn L.. 1999. “Evidence of the Long-Term Persistence of Adults’ Political Predispositions.” Journal of Politics 61(1): 128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sennet, Richard, and Cobb, Jonathan. 1972. The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York: Vintage.Google Scholar
Shulman, Hillary C., and Levine, Timothy R.. 2012. “Exploring Social Norms as a Group‐Level Phenomenon: Do Political Participation Norms Exist and Influence Political Participation on College Campuses?Journal of Communication 62(3): 532–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sidanius, James, Levin, Shana, Laar, Colette Van, and Sears, David O.. 2008. The Diversity Challenge: Social Identity and Intergroup Relations on the College Campus. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Solt, Federick. 2010. “Does Economic Inequality Depress Electoral Participation? Testing the Schattschneider Hypothesis.” Political Behavior 32(2): 285301.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Soss, Joe. 1999. “Lessons of Welfare: Policy Design, Political Learning, and Political Action.” American Political Science Review 93(2): 363–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stephens, Nicole M., Bannon, Tiffany N., Markus, Hazel Rose, and Nelson, Jessica E.. 2015. “Feeling at Home in College: Fortifying School-Relevant Selves to Reduce Social Class Disparities in Higher Education.” Social Issues and Policy Review 9(1): 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stephens, Nicole M., Fryberg, Stephanie A., Markus, Hazel Rose, Johnson, Camille S., and Covarrubias, Rebecca. 2012. “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102(6): 1178–97.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Stevens, Mitchell L., Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Arum, Richard. 2008. “Sieve, Incubator, Temple, Hub: Empirical and Theoretical Advances in the Sociology of Higher Education.” Annual Review of Sociology 34:127–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stoker, Laura, and Bass, Jackie. 2011. “Political Socialization: Ongoing Questions and New Directions.” In Oxford Handbook of American Public Opinion and the Media, ed. Edwards, George C. III, Jacobs, Lawrence R., and Shapiro, Robert Y., 453–71. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Verba, Sidney, Schlozman, Kay Lehman, and Brady, Henry. 1995. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Walsh, Katherine Cramer, Stoker, Laura, and Jennings, M. Kent. 2004. “The Effects of Social Class Identification on Participatory Orientations towards Government.” British Journal of Political Science 34(3): 469–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Supplementary material: Link

Mendelberg et al. Dataset

Supplementary material: PDF

Mendelberg et al. supplementary material

Online Appendix

Download Mendelberg et al. supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 3.4 MB