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.