Can Your Best Friend’s Mom Double Your Odds of Completing College?

It’s common knowledge among parents that your children’s friends have a big influence on their attitudes and ambitions. A recent study, published in the February 2013 American Educational Research Journal, suggests that perhaps parents should be even more concerned with their children’s friends’ parents. Hua-Yu Cherng and his colleagues Jessica Calarco and Grace Kao have found that the educational attainment level of the mother of a child’s best friend has a surprisingly powerful effect on the likelihood that the student will complete college. Using the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Cherng, Calarco and Kao set out to trace the impact that having “resource-rich” best friends has on college completion.

Cherng and his colleagues endeavored to isolate from the survey data the effects of both the material and cultural resources of best friends on college completion1.  They found that a best friends’ cultural resources (as measured by having a mother with a 4-year college degree) and economic resources (as measured by household income both have a significant positive effect on college completion, but the effect of friends’ cultural resources is much stronger. In fact, according to Cherng, “having a best friend with a college-educated mother more than doubles an adolescent’s odds of completing college.” 2

Aside from making you want to obtain the CVs of all your children’s friends’ mothers, what are we to make of this? We’ve come to expect that the children of college-educated parents will have much higher college completion rates than students whose parents didn’t complete college. But, it comes as a surprise that friends’ parents can have such a strong effect. What the study startlingly reveals is the powerful, but still largely unacknowledged, role of cultural capital in determining educational outcomes. 

Cultural capital is a concept developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which is widely employed in academia and used very little in the worlds of policy or philanthropy. As Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger point out in their excellent article on the subject, the term doesn’t describe knowledge of highbrow art and “culture” nor is it easily isolated from “skills and abilities.”  It isn’t limited to “college knowledge” or a detailed understanding of how the financial aid system works, although those can be components of it. Rather, cultural capital refers to the ability, knowledge and confidence required to navigate and, crucially, influence in your favor powerful institutions like schools and universities.

A best friend’s mother’s having a four-year college degree isn’t a perfect proxy for having cultural capital, but it’s a pretty good one, since it indicates that the graduate knew enough about how to navigate various levels of educational institutions in order to obtain her degree.  In practical terms, cultural capital is the instinct to make (appropriate) demands on institutions rather than to comply, and is the knowledge of how to “work the system” effectively to achieve one’s ends.  It implies that the awareness of and access to resources and strategies that can help students recover from setbacks on the path to college acceptance and degree completion is critically important to success. For example, a parent with middle-class cultural capital  would find or hire a tutor rather than just accept a child’s low SAT score, or would contest a placement into non-college track classes rather than acquiesce quietly. In both cases, parents with middle-class cultural capital3 would see the negative outcome as something that can be influenced in a more positive direction, whereas the parents with less of that sort of capital would see it as something that can’t be changed.

The critical idea here – and what this study shows – is that this type of cultural capital is both critically important for success, and has nothing to do with talent or intelligence; these are simply learned behaviors. One needs to be exposed to them to learn them. These lessons don’t have to be learned in one’s own home, but they do need to be learned somewhere. Maybe even from your best friend’s mom. In my next blog, I’ll explore what happens when these lessons aren’t learned.

1The study controlled for variables that we know influence friend selection and educational attainment, including race, gender and age as well as GPAs and measures of college plans and expectations. Their model also controlled for school-level factors, since friends generally attend the same school.

2The increase in likelihood of completing college from having a friend’s mother who is college educated is lower, but still quite significant, even when looking at students whose own mothers completed college.

3Cultural capital of various kinds exists at all levels of society, but some forms are privileged and dominant. Unsurprisingly, those are the kinds that help one gain access to and complete postsecondary education.

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