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.
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