Becoming "more better" : a study of financial aid students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa

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This study examines the transition into higher education for a group of low-income, black students at a South African university. Its particular focus is on how these young people navigate a parallel transition across class boundaries, a shift that for many required learning and adopting new social and cultural behaviors and beliefs. This reflected a path towards what many students in my research sample described as becoming "more better" - a phrase that I came to see as reflecting the ambiguities inherent in social mobility. "More better" implied both deeply embedded normative notions of the links between economic success, deservingness, and respectability, but also contempt for those who acquire wealth and forget their "roots." The conceptual underpinnings to these issues reflect two key literatures. First, I consider the theoretical lens provided by Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital, understood here as, "widely shared high status cultural signals (attitudes, preferences, formal knowledge, behaviors, goods and credentials), used for social and cultural exclusion, the former referring to exclusion from jobs and resources, and the latter to exclusion from high status groups" (Lamont and Laureau 1988, p.156). I draw in part on Carter's (2003, 2005) challenge to this version of classically defined cultural capital; in particular, the idea that cultural capital is context specific, and forms of "non-dominant" cultural capital may coexist with Bourdieuian or "dominant" cultural capital. I contend that many students simultaneously aspire to acquire dominant cultural capital, in recognition of its importance in the labor market as a driver of upwards economic mobility, whilst also valuing alternative forms of non-dominant cultural capital that allow them to build and maintain status within their home communities. I also reflect on the literature around student persistence that has evolved from Tinto's model of student departure (1971, 1987, 1993), contemplating the ways in which the transition into higher education requires a considerable degree of disconnection from students' home communities. Furthermore, the reality that entering university is more likely to entail a change in lifestyle and social networks for low-income students relative to their middle- and upper-class peers poses a unique set of challenges for this group, adding complexity to the adaptations necessary for success. The empirical evidence generated by this dissertation reflects a case study of 41 students on an affirmative action financial aid package at the University of Cape Town (UCT), whom I tracked for the course of an academic semester from July to November 2012. During my interactions with these students, I did not observe the dynamics I had anticipated -- difficulty in adapting to an environment of higher material wealth, and the pressure to remit income home were not typical features of their experience. Instead, the ways in which these challenges played out were far more complex and subtle, and the issues many students appeared to struggle with the most were instead a function of the demands of managing identities and expectations when transitioning across spaces: UCT and their home (especially family) environment. The key findings of my research are presented in two chapters: the first provides a descriptive analysis of students' home backgrounds and their trajectories to UCT. Particularly notable here is the observation that almost all students had a strong intrinsic sense of self-belief, and were often driven by the objective of improving their personal socio-economic position and that of their families. Their families typically represented a strong support structure and source of motivation, even though in most cases students were often the first to graduate from high school, and almost always the first to consider a obtaining a university degree. Indeed, for family members who were of an older generation, their enthusiasm for education seemed to be driven in part by the value they attached to opportunities not available to them under apartheid. A lack of exposure to both the school and university contexts mean that the direct academic support (for example, help with degree choice) family members could provide to students was limited, but in many cases, guardians attempted to assist in creating an enabling environment for learning by, for example, engaging with teacher and administrators at students' high schools, or enforcing strict discipline prioritizing schoolwork over other activities. The second chapter examines the social complexities this group of young people faced as they navigated the path to socio-economic mobility following entry to UCT. Pursuit of higher education generates an extensive web of obligations for students, based both on the receipt of financial support from family during their studies, and on a sense of communal responsibility. In particular, many seemed to feel a heavy burden to provide reciprocal financial support to family following graduation. This generates considerable pressure on students during their studies, and in many cases appeared to limit their choice of careers, with priority accorded to degree choices that would translate into labor market opportunities with higher potential earnings. As they navigated the space between UCT and their home communities students also faced a struggle between balancing multiple identities -- adopting norms of "respectability" which would demonstrate that they had the capacity to succeed in an environment very different to that in which they had been raised, whilst, for many, simultaneously attempting to maintain a connection to the cultural norms and values imparted by their upbringing and that had been central to shaping their character prior to their time at UCT. There were very few students who appeared to wish to disconnect from their home communities completely, even though these relationships too were complex. Whilst their economic trajectory created a sense of jealousy and of being "left behind" for many from their home community and therefore produced a host of negative reactions, they were often also perceived as role models benefitted from the associated affirmation and support.


Type of resource text
Form electronic; electronic resource; remote
Extent 1 online resource.
Publication date 2016
Issuance monographic
Language English


Associated with Irving, Margaret Louise
Associated with Stanford University, Graduate School of Education.
Primary advisor Carnoy, Martin
Primary advisor Carter, Prudence L
Thesis advisor Carnoy, Martin
Thesis advisor Carter, Prudence L
Thesis advisor Antonio, Anthony Lising, 1966-
Thesis advisor Bettinger, Eric
Advisor Antonio, Anthony Lising, 1966-
Advisor Bettinger, Eric


Genre Theses

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Margaret Louise Irving.
Note Submitted to the Graduate School of Education.
Thesis Thesis (Ph.D.)--Stanford University, 2016.
Location electronic resource

Access conditions

© 2016 by Margaret Louise Irving
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).

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