Saturday, November 10, 2012

Talking about social class on campus

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
NASPA Net Results (2007)

Social class gets little attention as a diversity issue on campus yet is often at the center of many current campus issues. The Spellings Report (Commission on the Future of Higher Education, 2006) and Lumina Foundation (2007) concerns with student access and academic success are at their core class issues. First generation students and millennial students on campus present class issues. Student involvement and student leadership are class issues. Yet access, success, students, involvement, and leadership are not discussed as they relate to class issues.

One barrier to talking about class on campus is that we don’t have the language to talk about it. Developing a language to talk about class is the first step along the path to awareness, knowledge, and skill. Another barrier to talking about class is that it makes people uncomfortable and raises many objections. Cline (2007) has a nice collection of “25 things you will hear if you try to talk about class”. “A Touchy Subject” is the name of the first chapter in Class by Fussell (1983).

Class as Capital

There are multiple metaphors of class that come to us from economics, sociology, and psychology. Class as economic capital is the classic metaphor. Using this definition class is seen as money, and the issues of class are economic, the barriers to class movement are economic and the interventions are economic. Money is an incomplete metaphor for class.

Pierre Bourdieu (1983) in The forms of capital expanded the discussion of capital to include economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Social capital, also used by the World Bank, was best captured by Cuyjet (2002) as “It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you”. Social capital is a durable social network, and this takes time and skill to build. Cultural capital is knowledge, skills, objects, and educational attainment, and these take time and skill to accumulate. I add academic capital to these three forms of capital, and capital becomes a richer metaphor for class on campus. Academic capital is the knowledge base and skill set necessary to be successful in school, and it takes time and skill to accumulate.

First generation students’ access and academic success can be seen as more than money issues when we use this richer metaphor for class as capital. First generation students have less economic, social, cultural, and academic capital than do second generation students. When we use this metaphor, class barriers and remedial actions can be seen more clearly. The accumulation of capital begins at home, and first generation students come from low capital homes.

To complicate this capital metaphor one important step further, we must include the idea of prestige, which is at the heart of social class. There is high prestige cultural and social capital and low prestige social and cultural capital. First generation students may come to campus with low prestige cultural capital that is not valued by the prestige class on campus. Similarly, first generation students may not accumulate social capital with members of the prestige groups on campus and rely on the social capital from High School friends on campus.

Class as Identity

Another metaphor for class is identity. At an early age we all develop a gender identity, an ethnic identity, a social class identity, and other identities. We learn who and what we are, and who and what we are not. While gender and ethnic identity may shift in time to more mature models, social class identity can be more complicated. Seen complexly social class identity has three parts; we all have a social class of origin, a current felt social class, and an attributed social class. A shift in attributed social class may or may not correspond to a shift in current felt social class identity.

For example, Jane is a first-generation student who succeeds in accumulating economic capital, prestige cultural capital, prestige social capital, and academic capital on campus. This wealth will not change her social class of origin, may or may not change her current felt social class, and will definitely change her attributed social class. On coming to campus, especially a selective campus, a first generation student experiences high social class contrast between campus social class culture and the student’s social class of origin. If she is successful on campus through the process of acculturation and assimilation, then her social class contrast on campus is reduced. Concurrently, her experience of social class contrast at home may become an important issue as she assimilates into a higher social class campus culture. Social class contrast is similar to gender and ethnic contrast and may be part of the reason that first generation students fail to persist on a campus.

Changing current felt social class means becoming a different identity, something we learned that we were not during our identity development. Changing to a more mature model of masculinity does not change Ahmed’s basic gender identity. Changing between social classes can be disintegrative when Ahmed moves away from his social class of origin identity by aligning his current felt social class and attributed social class. Changing social class can be integrative when Ahmed embraces multiple social class identities retaining his social class of origin, developing a new current felt social class, and recognizing his attributed social class.

Class as Culture

Social class can be seen as a collection of subcultures arranged in a hierarchy of prestige. This class metaphor includes multiple forms of capital and, multiple identities, and it provides for a cultural view of class in which the barriers are economic, cultural, social, academic, and identity. Using a “yes, and . . . “ metaphor of class leads to social justices for class inequity that are cultural, social, academic, and identity based, not just money based.

When we use a culture and identity metaphor for class, then each campus has a social class culture. A social class cultural analysis of the campus majority culture yields productive ways to explore the experiences of social class minority students and to discover appropriate interventions.  

Using the Language of Social Class

Applying this language of class to college access, to first generation students, to millennial students, to student involvement, to leadership, to campus programming gives us insight into what we do and what we don’t do on campus. The ideal student has the resources to purchase recommended readings in class and the time to be involved in organizations and activities. The real student may be employed 20 hours a week to pay for tuition. The ideal student knows something about the world so when the residence hall association constitution gets written, the student knows how constitutions work. The real student may not have been involved in high school or know about these types of organizations. The ideal student has good social skills and can make connections to the right people, quickly becoming involved. The real student may have limited social skills and a circle of friends from high school only. The ideal student can read well, write well, study effectively, and think critically. The real student may not have gone to a high school with a strong emphasis on college preparation.

The accumulation of economic, cultural, social, and academic capital begins at home and is fostered in elementary and secondary schools. Some students come to campus wealthy, and some do not. Economically, culturally, socially, and academically wealthy students will do better on our campuses than will lower class students.

Access to post secondary education should be seen as more than an economic capital issue. Barriers to access and success are economic, and cultural, and social, and academic, and identity. First generation students come to campus with little cultural capital about how colleges work and few social skills to develop social capital with prestige people who have resources. Millennial students, as they have been described, come to campus with economic, cultural, social, and academic capital. While this may describe students on many campuses, it does not describe the first generation students on my campus.

Student involvement, so crucial on campus, requires social capital and the skills to build social relationships with people who have resources. Student leadership positions go to the students who come to campus with student leadership experience capital that they accumulated at home, in clubs and organizations, and in school before they came to campus. Students whose parents went to college are more likely to know about and use resources on campus.

Campus as a Classing Experience

In The forms of capital (1983) Bourdieu described how higher education in France is a vehicle to reproduce social class. Highly selective campuses in the US reproduce social class by admitting mostly students who have more economic, cultural, social, and academic capital. “The relationship between income and selectivity is clear and consistent” (Postsecondary Education Opportunity, 2002).

We also have social class access institutions in the US. My campus has 60% first generation students, more than twice the percentage of the prestige institutions in my state. Community colleges play an access roll by providing the first two undergraduate years and they play a role in reproducing social class by providing skills training for the working classes. The transfer rates from community colleges to four year institutions are interesting when viewed through a social class lens.
As might be expected, some campuses do well and others do poorly with students from the lower social classes (Pell Institute, 2004). A discussion of these issues in student affairs has been lacking and is necessary for us to better serve all the students on our campus. Language is an important part of our beginning this discussion. Using the language discussed here, as well as the more complex understandings of class can guide the discussion and help us identify campus-based challenges and supports for all students.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital.  Pp. 241-258 in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. Richardson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Cline, C. (n.d.). 25 things you will hear if you try to talk about class. Retrieved April 20, 2007, from
Commission on the Future of Higher Education. (2006). A test of leadership: Charting the future of U.S. higher education. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Cuyjet, M. (2002). Personal communication
Fussel, P. (1983) Class: A guide through the American status system. New York: Touchstone
Lumnia Foundation. (2007). About Us. Retrieved April 20, 2007, from
Pell Instutute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, (2004). Raising the graduation rates of low-income college students. Retrieved April 20, 2007, from
Postsecondary Education Opportunity, (2002). Institutional Graduation Rates by Control, Academic Selectivity and Degree Level 1983 to 2001, Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY Number 117, March 2002. 

This material first appeared in NASPA NetResults in 2007 and I used to host a copy on my campus web site, which is now gone, and NASPA archives require a password. 

No comments: