MAGS Distinguished Thesis Award Nominee: Ainsley Lambert

Ainsley Lambert.

Ainsley Lambert

As an undergraduate student, you were probably asked incessantly what your major was and how you could use that degree in the “real world.” But how many times were you asked why you chose to go to your undergraduate institution and how you made that decision? Ainsley Lambert, a UC sociology student, focused on these questions for her master’s thesis, “Applying & Deciding: Students' Perceptions of the Role of Parents and Schools in the College Enrollment Process.”

Ainsley, who is now a doctoral student in sociology at UC, interviewed 17 seniors and two administrators at a Kentucky high school during her thesis work. Her goal was to discover students’ perceptions of the role parents and schools play in their college enrollment decisions. Ainsley found that, to a certain extent, social class played a role in the students’ perception of their parents’ involvement—both in their high school academics and their college-enrollment decisions. However, when she asked the students about their use of school resources, Ainsley was surprised by what she found. 

“Regardless of their background, the students talked about the fact that they didn’t need the school’s resources. It was almost like they had made decisions early on about what their college experience would look like and they operated based on those,” Ainsley said. “Even though the resources were there, the students talked about the fact that they didn’t use them.”

This research and insight into high school students’ college decision-making process is the reason Ainsley was chosen to represent UC in the social sciences category of the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS) Distinguished Thesis Award competition. The regional competition recognizes recent master’s graduates who have demonstrated exceptional scholarship in their theses. Gavin D Souza, currently a doctoral student in the mechanical engineering, was selected to represent UC in the physical sciences and engineering category.

As part of her thesis research, Ainsley explored an education-industry partnership made available to students at the Kentucky high school. As a senior or recent high school graduate, students could work for an international shipping company and receive college tuition. Many students at the high school used this education-industry partnership to receive free tuition at the local community college. Ainsley noticed, that while tuition for the local four-year college was also available, few students took advantage of that opportunity, opting for a two-year program instead.

“Some students talked about the fact that the local community college was cheaper, but that (to me) didn’t really make sense if the company was paying for it. Other students talked about wanting to live at home, so [perhaps] the idea of moving away from home for school wasn’t what they had anticipated for their college career,” Ainsley said. “I had a couple of students talk about the fact that this was common, that a lot of students chose to go to the two-year college because they weren’t quite sure about college yet. And so they wanted to sort of get their feet wet and find out if college was really for them before they went to the four year school. But again, if your college is being paid for, it still doesn’t make sense to go to the two year—at least from my perspective.”

Many of the discoveries Ainsley made in talking to these high school students challenge the assumptions so often made in discussions on how to encourage students from lower income situations and disadvantaged group to go to college. “The assumptions that we make are that if they had those resources, that they would use them and that the outcomes would be different,” she said. However, this assumption doesn’t seem to hold true. Another issue Ainsley often encountered during her research was a lack of social and cultural capital. She shared, “I didn’t get the sense from students that they had an understanding of how universities are tiered, that there’s this hierarchy among higher education.” One particular student Ainsley interviewed was extremely excited to be entering a program at a local for-profit university—especially as a first generation college student—but she could not say what degree she would receive from the program. “For me, it was really evident that there were students who were making decisions about college enrollment without this capital,” Ainsley said.

These research findings challenge the accuracy of broad statements surrounding the supposed equal access and opportunity for any and all students applying to an undergraduate institution. “When we really go and look at how people’s backgrounds inform their decisions, the assumption that everyone has the information that they need is not what we find,” noted Ainsley. 

While Ainsley is currently focusing on the experiences of multi-racial families for her doctoral program, she sees herself possibly returning to her thesis work in the future. “There are definitely lots of things I’m still interested in as it relates to the sociology of education,” she said. “I would love to go back and do more with this education-industry partnership. I think it’s really interesting.” Ainsley's passion and work in the field of sociology thus far have cemented her status as a promising young researcher. No matter the direction she takes her research, it is sure to be innovative and insightful. We look forward to seeing what findings her doctoral research brings to light.