The working class and higher education

This is a tale about class differences and higher education.

My sister’s daughters are both business majors. The older one, 23, a finance major, just began her career at a major corporation. The younger, 22, will graduate next spring with a combined BS/MS in data analytics and go to work for a major consulting company. 

The offspring of parents with advanced degrees, the young women were brought up in an affluent suburb of Indianapolis and attended one of the top five high schools in Indiana. They were A students in both high school and college. I doubt that they ever questioned whether they’d go to college and have professional careers.

I know of a young man whose first semester at a Big Ten university was his last. He has few college-educated role models and attended local schools where more than four in ten students are eligible for subsidized lunches. Unhappy almost from arriving on campus, he gave up a scholarship and is looking into trade union apprenticeships where the median pay with experience is considerably less than my nieces’ starting salaries. 

Now, I don’t believe that money is everything; my own career demonstrates that my values are elsewhere. And I agree that college is not for everyone. If this young man finds a trade he enjoys, good for him. 

I also realize that in my own generation, my siblings and I prove that it Is possible to rise out of the working class. Yet I can’t help looking at the young man’s experience through the lens of class, seeing it as testimony to how much expectations, role models, and environment influence young people’s direction.

As a group, the working class — usually defined as not having a college degree — sends fewer of its children to college than the middle and upper classes. Sixty percent of upper- and middle-class students earn bachelor’s degrees within eight years of college enrollment, compared with 14 percent of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Some of the reasons that social scientists have identified for the disparity are what you would expect: Inadequate preparation in middling grade and high schools. Cost. These factors affect not only whether and where working-class students enroll in college but also whether they continue. 

Even when universities address the barriers of cost and inadequate preparation, however, an achievement gap persists. A less obvious reason is that working-class students who enroll in college often don’t think that they belong. They feel out of place not only with other students but also with erudite professors, college traditions, and plush campus facilities. They lack the confidence, sense of entitlement, and independence of their more sophisticated peers. 

“[S]tudents from working-class families — those who are low-income or the first in their families to attend college — struggle to achieve in college,” Politico reported. “Even the most highly qualified working-class students receive lower GPAs and drop out more often than their middle- and upper-class peers.”

Researchers have found that the working-class value of interdependence is undermined in the independent culture of higher education. This erodes confidence. When facing setbacks, working-class students tend to think that they don’t have what it takes to succeed in college. They may fear looking stupid if they ask questions or seek tutoring and other help. 

“It appears that a cultural mismatch is what’s causing [working-class] students to drop out,” Study International concluded. “Many of these students reportedly feel . . . that the campus is not set up for students like them.”

Colleges and universities must be aware of the research and presumably are trying to address the problem. College isn’t for everyone, but as long as it doesn’t serve all classes equally, there is a problem.


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  • This is a very reasonable investigation, Marianne. Thank you.

  • I completely agree with you. Having an education is not yet an indicator of intelligence and the fact that a person will really succeed. Thank you for offering to discuss such a topic.

  • In reply to ThomasCruz:

    Thank you both for writing.

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