Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Social Class and Education: Reproduction, Replication or Resistance, Robert Longwell-Grice, Ed.D.

Social Class and Education: Reproduction, Replication or Resistance

Rob Longwell-Grice, EdD
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
First-generation college students undergo enormous transformations as they negotiate the difficult transition into the culture of academia. First-generation college students confront all the anxieties, dislocations, and difficulties of any other college students and their experiences often involve cultural as well as social and academic transitions (Rendon, 1996; Pascarella, Wolniak, Pierson & Terenzini, 2003). First-generation college students are more likely than their peers to come from low-income and working-class households, they receive less assistance in preparing for college, feel less supported for attending college, and lack a sense of belonging to the college they attend (Choy, 2001), all of which play a role in the recruitment and retention of students from these working-class backgrounds. The transition to college for first-generation college students is particularly challenging as a result of these numerous at-risk factors (Lohfink, & Paulsen, 2005; Longwell-Grice, 2008).
According to the United States Department of Education, 10 years ago 43 percent of students attending post-secondary institutions in the United States are first-generation students (Nunez & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998), and there is a consensus that these numbers will continue to grow as a college degree becomes necessary for more entry-level jobs (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991; Ntiri, 2001). At the same time, however, the proportion of first-time, full-time first-generation college students attending four-year institutions has steadily declined since 1971 (Higher Education Research Institute, 2007). Because first-generation college students have different characteristics and experiences than the students higher education has traditionally served, they are a group at risk and are clearly in need of greater research and administrative attention if they are to succeed in college (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella & Nora, 1996).
This micro-chapter presents results of a multiple case study involving four first-generation working-class, white male college freshmen during their first semester at an urban research university in the South, who discuss issues related to their preparation for college, the support they felt while attending college, and the sense of belonging they developed while attending college. These perceptions were analyzed through a social-class lens. The study found that these first-generation working-class students were dealing with the phenomena of status incongruity which created confusion and discontentment for them. The study also found that these students felt the need to develop ‘back up plans’ in case they did not succeed in college, and the students were constantly concerned with keeping out of debt. The study makes recommendations for colleges who are interested in helping working-class students deal with these issues and help ensure their success in college.
Liu (2001), Jackma and Jackma (1983) maintain that because class stratification is multi-dimensional (having aspects of income, education, and occupation) and because there is no one single criterion for determining social class, many researchers have abandoned the concept that it is an issue around which people form their identity. This is especially true, Liu, Jackma and Jackma argue, as race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion become more significant as identity issues. However, social class determines the type of education one receives (Anyon, 1980) and the type of college one attends (McDonough, 1997), and these two factors play a crucial role in defining one’s class.
Vander Putten (2001) argues that educators and multiculturalists have a narrow view of diversity, and define it solely in terms of race and gender. The problem of using these two lenses exclusively, Vander Putten maintains, is that, “Bill Gates and a white male Appalachian coal miner will be seen as equal” (p.15). Further, Vander Putten asserts, this limited view of only using race and gender can be attributed to the widely held myth in the United States that everyone belongs to the middle class.
This study intentionally included students who considered themselves to be members of the working class in order to assess how the nexus of their first generation and social class status affected these students’ collegiate experience. The issue of social class was deeply imbedded in the experiences of these students. Social class was woven into these students’ lives as they lived through issues related to preparation for college, support for college, and belonging to college.
While many campuses have drawn attention to the interplay of ethnicity and gender in shaping the educational experiences of college students, colleges have paid limited attention to the complex issues of social class itself (Faulkner, 1995; Odair, 1993; Van Galen, 2000). While educators continue to stress the importance of a college degree for achieving success and class mobility, for low income and working class students, obtaining a college degree is becoming increasingly difficult and their numbers on college campuses have decreased accordingly (Soliday, 1999). Meanwhile, working class students are uncomfortable questioning a system that they are trying so hard to learn. Liu (2001) maintains that social class is a pervasive and important dimension in one’s life, yet it seems to be one of the least understood constructs in psychology. He argues, “often social class is treated as a singular variable, used to infer a person’s social class ‘thinking’” (p. 127), rather than as just one part of a person’s lived experience. Social class, Liu claims, is linked to almost every part of a person’s life, affecting occupational attainment, job satisfaction and educational achievement, among other areas of ones’ life. Along with first gen status, social class is one of the key components of this study.
In this study, issues of social class were reflected in the estrangement the students felt towards the college they attended. Their social class also hindered their preparation for college, and the support that they felt for enrolling in college. This is reflected in the following passage from Patrick, one of the participants in the study:
A typical college student to me is just what I’ve seen. To me, they all dress alike in those fancy clothes, and they go out and party all the time. And they drive those fancy cars, and listen to rap music really, really loud. And some of them are weird. And I don’t do any of those things. Being well off is one thing about them. I find a lot of them drive nicer cars than I do. And I don’t think that I am the smartest person in the world but I know for a fact that I am a lot more intelligent than some of them. And I see a lot of stupid things going on. Typically, they are spoiled, rich kids to me but a lot of them aren’t so that is a very bad thing for me to say. A lot of them worked their way up here just as much as I did, if not more. So, I am saying that the ones that irk me the most, are the ones I refer to, which are the majority, I believe. Of course I might be wrong.
As this statement indicates, Patrick did not see himself as a “typical” college student. To Patrick, “typical” college students are rich, spoiled, dress alike, party, and behave stupidly. He tried to correct himself when he said that some of them had to work their way into college, but then he went on to clarify that he felt the majority did not. Patrick was a college student now, which was something no previous generation in his family had ever achieved. However, now he was in danger of being seen as one of “them” and he wanted to make it clear that he was not like those “other” students. He did not fit the stereotype that he and his friends and his family had of college students. They were like Bill Gates. He was like the Appalachian coal miner. Van Putten (2001) is correct when he argues that when colleges ignore social class, white students from working class backgrounds become largely invisible on the college campus, which further adds to the feelings of working class students that they do not belong on the campus.
Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Work, 162, 67-92.
Choy, S. (2001). The condition of education, 2001. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics (Publication No. 2001072), [on-line], available:
Faulkner, C. (1995). My beautiful mother. In J. Zandy (Ed.). Liberating memory: Our work and our working class consciousness. New Bruswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press.
Higher Education Research Institute (2007). First in My Family: A profile of first-generation college students at four-year institutions since 1971. Available:
Jackma, M.. R. & Jackma, R. W. (1983). Class awareness in the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Liu, W. M. (2001). Expanding our understanding of multiculturalism: Developing a social class world view model. In D. P. Pope-Davis and H. L. K. Coleman (Eds.), The intersection of race, class and gender in multi-cultural counseling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Lohfink, M. & Paulsen, M. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 409-428.
Longwell-Grice, R. & Longwell-Grice, H. (2008). Testing Tinto: How Do Retention Theories Work For First-Generation, Working-Class Students? Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 9 (4) 2008 (In Press).
McDonough, P. (1997). Choosing colleges: How social class and schools structure opportunity. New York: State University of New York Press.
Ntiri, D. W. (2001). Access to higher education for nontraditional students and minorities in a technology focused society. Urban Education,1, 129-144.
Nunez, A.-M. & Cuccaro-Alamin, S. (1998). First generation students: Undergraduates whose parents have never enrolled in postsecondary education. (NCES 98-082). U. S. Department of Education, NCES. Washington, DC. [on-line], available:
O’dair, S. (1993). Vestments and vested interests: Academia, the working class, and affirmative action. In M. M. Tokarczyk & E. A. Fay (Eds.), Working class women in the academy: Laborers in the knowledge factory. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Pascarrella, E. T. & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students: Findings from twenty years of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pascarella, E. T., Wolniak, G., Pierson, C. & Terenzini, P. T. (2003). Experiences and outcomes of first-generation students in community colleges. Journal of College Student Development,44, 420-429.
Rendon, L. I. (1996). Life on the border. About Campus 1, 14-20.
Soliday, M. (1999). Class dismissed. College English 61, 731-741.
Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. Pascarella,E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First generation college students: characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher Education,37, 1-22.
Vander Putten, J. (2001). Bringing social class to the diversity challenge. About campus 6, 14-19.
Van Galen, J. A. (2000). Education and class. Multicultural Education 7, 2-11.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Class key words and secret language

Revealing the hidden or disguised dialog about class requires knowing some of the ways that class is disguised. Terms often heard on campus, like first generation students, access, legacy students, community colleges, selective colleges, need based, and merit based are all class based terms.

First generation students are defined in two ways. First, a restrictive definition are students whose parents did not attend college and represents about half of all 18 year olds. Second, a less restrictive definition are students whose parents did not complete college and represents about 75% of all 18 year olds. This difference is not trivial. Parents who had even one semester in college have experience based advice and counsel for their children. While one semester in college may seem like a small difference, there is a clear income difference between US workers with no experience in college and one semester in college.

Access is used to describe the ability to enroll in and pay for college. Calls for increased access can be found coming from the political left, right, and center. After all, who is not in favor of more US citizens getting more education, having a ‘better life’, making more income, and paying more taxes? Access reflects an attitude that everyone should want to improve their life through education, because uneducated (poor) people have lives less worth living than do educated (rich) people. Colleges are regularly exhorted to expand enrollments and those doing the exhorting ignore the reality that nearly anyone who wants to go to a four year college can get accepted somewhere in their state system, albeit with a heavy burden of remedial courses that don’t count toward graduation.

Legacy student is a keyword meaning the children of college graduates, probably from that university. Legacy students are the opposite of first generation students. Legacy students come from families with education and income, and who know the norms of the campus life. Deconstructing this idea we find that legacy students come to campus knowing the secret handshakes, dress, and behavior codes, and may well come to campus knowing select faculty and administrators.

Community college is often used in the context of a campus for the lower classes, for those not destined for management jobs or one of the traditional professions. Granted that the community college system does provide access and upward mobility, and is a great national triumph, it is important to recognize that only a small percentage of students who enroll at community colleges ever transfer to, much less graduate from, four year colleges. A quick examination of the programs at community colleges reveals their core vocational curriculum. In some ways the community college system maintains social class structure in the US. The community colleges provide valuable commodity skills for students to enable them to become the skilled working class, having low work autonomy and little supervisory authority. In spite of this cynical class based view of the community college it is vital to recognize their important and long lasting contribution to economic, personal, and income growth in the US economy, US workforce, and among US families.

Selective college is the keyword for upper-middle and upper class colleges. As community colleges are for the underclass, selective, and especially highly selective colleges, are for the overclass.

Need based and merit based financial aid are class loaded terms. Need based financial aid refers to family income and is used to provide financial assistance to qualified students who don’t have money. Merit based financial aid is given to students with high grades, high test scores, and high class standing. These students are widely sought by selective colleges, and merit based financial aid is one way to purchase, or rent, these students. Grades, test scores, and class standing are closely tied to matters of social class. Merit based aid is the code word for higher class students and need based aid is a code word for lower class students. Many selective campuses are proud of their “need blind” aid it is prominently advertised. This can be deconstructed as a declaration that lower class students need not apply.

Where you start matters.

If you start to understand class based on your personal experiences, as most of us do, it will limit your understanding of class until you learn more about the class experiences of others. If you come to understand class in a journey to understand ethnicity, then you will have a view of class heavily influenced by ethnicity. While class and ethnicity are closely related, starting at ethnicity and coming to class will result in very different views of class than if you start at class. Which is more important, class or ethnicity? The answer to that depends on the context of the question. Which is more important in predicting if a large number of students go to college, where they will go, and if they will graduate is a different question than asking about the daily oppression experienced by ethnic and class minorities.

Something new

I started this blog a while ago and then added nothing. Well, as I was working on a manuscript for a book on social class on campus, I posted the chapters as they were finished. In part this was to get feedback, and in part to motivate me. I took most of that material down because it seemed to be clutter here. I left some up because it is good stuff.

Now, I think I am ready to blog on social class on campus, regularly contributing material.

Why now? Well, I was emailing with a colleague - Drew Lurker - who has a wonderful visual sense of the world and has been collecting photos that have social class cues, and well, this is a visual medium, so I offered Drew a forum here. In a few days that new material will be up.