Sunday, October 02, 2011

Why is social class important?

Will Barratt

Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

"Why is social class important?" is a great question.  In a podcast interview with Stu Brown (  he started with that question and I was not ready for it.  It took me a while to come up with a good answer.

Why this question gets asked, and why this question doesn’t get asked are two interlocking pieces of the puzzle.

I will not ask why social class is important if I am unaware of the day-to-day issues of social class in my life and in the lives of people around me.  Awareness is the key here. 

Ask yourself these three questions:
1)      Why is gender important?
2)      Why is ethnicity important?
3)   Why is GLBT important?

Now ask yourself why social class is important.  The answers to these four questions should be similar.  Gender, ethnicity, GLBT, and social class are important in our lives and in the lives of people around us.

Now ask yourself why so many people are asking, talking, and writing about gender, ethnicity, and GLBT, and so few people are asking, talking, and writing about social class.

Research shows us that social class, as defined by parental income and education, is the best predictor of whether or not high school students go to college, where they go to college, and if they graduate from college.  This social class predictor works for men, for women, and for every tracked ethnic minority status.  The US Census Bureau ( has great collections of data on college attendance by ethnicity and gender ( that can be compared with income and ethnicity tables (

Social class is a better predictor of college attendance and success than is gender.  Women attend college and graduate from college at higher rates than do men.  Even accounting for small numbers of women in STEM professions, gender is a weak, but positive predictor of college attendance and success in the US.

Ethnicity and social class are linked in some interesting ways in the US.  Not all poor and uncolleged people are ethnic minorities and not all ethnic minorities are poor and uncolleged.  The truth is that each identifiable ethnic minority group in the US can be arranged in a hierarchy of college attendance and graduation rates that are closely tied to parental income and educational attainment.  Look at the US Census Bureau data links above. This is sociological and economic data on groups of people.  Every day I teach and talk with individual exceptions to this rule, but I do not talk with the people not on my campus, who would confirm this rule.  Based on abstract sociological and economic models, ethnicity is a real, but weak predictor of college attendance and success.  We can statistically subtract the effect of parental income and education from ethnicity, and the effect of ethnicity remains important, though not huge.

The reasons above for the importance of social class focus on us on the challenges faced by first generation students on campus.  What about the challenges faced by the second generation student on campus?

75% of students on campus come from 30% of the US population.  30% of the US adults have a college degree, or higher.  I cannot find data on how many mothers and fathers in dual parent households both have a degree, so I will be make the mistake of overestimating the percent of US households with either parent having a college degree.  75% of our students on our campus come from homes in which there was probably an expectation to attend college and graduate.   Again, the “probably” comes in because there is very little national data on family expectations of college attendance and parental education. 

Social class is critical for the first generation student and their experiences on campus.  I would venture to suggest, without data, that social class contrast is one of the main reasons that first generation students do not persist on campus to graduation. 

Social class is also critical for the majority student, the 75% coming from homes with at least one college graduate.  The reason for the importance of social class is not college success, but humanity.  If students don’t become aware of social class and confront it in the same way they confront gender, ethnicity, and GLBT issues their ignorance of social class will lead them to be less effective in the workplace and as citizens.  The level of publicized ignorance about income, insurance, and education during this political season is one effect of failing to learn about social class. 

Democracy is about both the majority and the minority.  In the case of the US the majority of citizens do not have a college education and have had a declining income recently (look at the US Census Bureau income data).  The minority, the college or graduate educated individual who makes and enforces the rules remain ignorant of class in the US.  If you are not interested in democracy, then ignore social class.

keywords: social class personal diversity college

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1 comment:

Leslie Lim said...

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