Scholars have extensively documented social class differences in students’ relationships with educational institutions through their interactions with authority figures and the unequal institutional advantages these interactions yield. However, little is known about whether or how social class also shapes students’ peer interactions in ways that produce these inequalities. Using a qualitative case study of an elite engineering school in which I draw on participant observation and interviews with 88 undergraduates and six administrators, I argue that social class context—a proxy for social class—shapes the peer help-seeking and help-giving (collaborative) strategies students use, which can create inequalities in the institutional advantages they secure in the form of academic help, support, and learning opportunities. Focusing specifically on the social class context of students’ high schools, I find that compared to their less-privileged counterparts, privileged students—who came from class-advantaged high school contexts where they became familiar with collaboration and upper-middle-class cultural signals—more easily collaborated with their college classmates and displayed signals that communicated they were “good” collaborators. The findings highlight new mechanisms through which inequalities are reproduced in educational institutions and make theoretical contributions to research on cultural capital, inequality, and education. The results also have implications for group performance and the use of collaborative learning as an instructional method. 

 This talk is based on my recent article by the same title.