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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 May 2020

Abstract

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.

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© American Political Science Association 2020

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Footnotes

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: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/360D4O

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.

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