First-Generation Students, College Majors and Gendered Pathways

Wright et al. / The Sociological Quarterly / November 2021

Emerging literatures have highlighted the social- and resource-related inequalities among first-generation college students. Less attention has been devoted to the curricular pathways (i.e., college majors) these students follow and their potentially gendered character. The authors build on educational inequality and gender literatures in this article, and arguments surrounding habitus and class-based dispositions to address this gap. Their analyses draw on several waves of the Education Longitudinal Survey (ELS-2002) merged with national data on sex composition of fields of study. Results suggest unique pathways in college for first-generation compared to continuing-generation students. Specifically, first-generation students are more likely to choose occupationally specific “applied” majors than their continuing-generation counterparts. Modeling by gender reveals little to moderate variation between first- and continuing-generation students’ representation in female-dominated majors. These patterns generally hold for 2- and 4-year college going samples. The authors conclude by discussing the relevance of these findings for educational inequality, eventual job returns, and occupational mobility.