Class on Campus: Breaking the Silence Surrounding Socioeconomics

As bell hooks has said, “Nowhere is there a more intense silence about the reality of class difference than in educational settings” (2000). On college and university campuses, everyday practices and policies are embedded with unexamined class assumptions, and individuals experience classed norms in powerful ways. Yet there is little consciousness about how class affects campus climates and individual lives. In order to improve our educational settings, we must identify the class-based norms embedded in how we conduct business, how we organize curricula, what we teach, and how we shape all these questions. By recognizing our biases, we will create more inclusive learning environments governed by more complex understandings of diversity.

Unexamined and Invisible

In the United States, there is little discussion about social class. The deeply held but inaccurate notion that America is a “classless society” stifles many conversations about the impact of class in our lives. Furthermore, the recognition that class is an issue challenges the core American belief that people can “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” American history includes some true “rags to riches” stories. But these obscure how class background typically shapes opportunity in a culture where the single most reliable predictor of one’s class status is the class status of one’s father (Bee 1987).

Admittedly, class in America is a complex topic. Multiple definitions of class, disagreement about the significance of class background, and ambiguity about class categories all complicate our attempts to understand the subject. For many years sociologists have studied economic stratification but have made few attempts to examine how class shapes life experiences. But, as Julio Alves has said, even if “the definition of class evades us…the consequences certainly don’t” (2006).

To understand these consequences, we must first understand how class shapes individual lives, social policy, and educational opportunity. In order to create a more diverse and inclusive educational community and to use a class lens as a resource, we must acknowledge the complexities that surround identity.

Multiple Identities

Janet Zandy describes class as “an aspect of shared economic circumstances and shared social and cultural practices in relationship to positions of power…. [Class] shapes our lives and intersects with race, ethnicity, gender and geography in profound ways” (1996). In order to build inclusive environments, we must understand how these multiple identities can also intersect to “form an interlocking system of oppression” (Linkon 1999). In other words, we must understand our own relationships to power.

In reality, individual lives involve multiple and dynamic overlapping identities. While working-class people, for example, may share common experiences related to economic or social vulnerability, their experiences differ based on other aspects of identity. Working-class people of color often experience different forms of marginalization related to racial identity. The same is true of gender and class, sexual orientation and class, geography and class, etc. There is no single class identity: class is always experienced through multiple lenses.

Even if we recognize these intersections, we often aren’t very skillful at describing them. Consequently, our conversations can dissolve into competitions over who is most marginalized, distracting from powerful opportunities to build bridges across difference. By developing class consciousness that attends to multiple identities, we increase our ability to provide effective leadership, create diverse environments, and expand the foundations of knowledge. We thus open the door to more integrated learning experiences for all students.

Class in the Academy

The practice of exploring class in the classroom has powerful implications for all students. Helping students understand their own relationships to power is an important first step toward engaging diverse communities. This understanding is important both for working-class students, who often feel that they do not fit into the academic environment, and for students of relative class privilege, who often are unconscious of how certain advantages shape their lives.

Like work related to white privilege, discussions of class privilege can be emotional for students and faculty. Embedded assumptions about class and merit, including what is “lazy” or “productive” and who qualifies as “poor,” can quickly create tension in a discussion. A stigma attaches to identifying oneself as working class, with students often feeling shame about admitting that their experiences are different from their classmates’ (one student described not wanting her classmates to know that her mother worked as a custodian at their school). At the same time, middle- and upper-middle-class students may find it easier to deny their privilege than to admit the ways class status has benefitted them.

Further complicating these explorations is the fact that education has long functioned as a way out of the economic restrictions associated with being working class. The culture of higher education, however, sends both subtle and explicit messages to working-class students, encouraging them to leave their communities (and even their identities) behind in order to be successful in the academy. Laura Rendón (1996) has described the space working-class students occupy, located between working-class (home) culture and middle/upper-class (university) culture, as “border living.” In order for students to have holistic and welcoming learning experiences, educators must identify strategies to assist students in negotiating “border living.”

Rethinking Middle-Class Norms

If education is a “way out” of working-class culture, this is not unrelated to the fact that institutional practices are embedded within middle-class norms. If we are committed to creating more inclusive learning communities, we must critically examine our institutions and our practices to unmask how classism manifests in organizational structures, whether through the texts we use, how our classes are organized, or how we reflect on our social locations.

Scholarly disciplines have broadened the base of knowledge by illuminating what and who has been missing from canons, historical analyses, and scientific questions. For example, the practice of excluding women or people of color as subjects of study or voices of authority at one time went unexamined. Scholarship about race and gender has now revitalized disciplines. Similarly, we need to unmask narrow constructions of class that diminish scholarship and limit learning experiences.

When choosing textbooks, for instance, do we include material that helps students develop capacities to examine the complexities of class? Do we offer multiple class perspectives so working-class students can see themselves as much as middle-class students can? A sociology professor who taught social stratification for twenty years realized that her own middle-class training led her to teach theoretical constructs without considering the lived implications of class for her students. She redesigned the course, expanded examples, and incorporated experiential knowledge. Exploring the lived reality of class became a common investigation for her students, generating rich conversations, revealing complex differences, and producing deeper understandings of the course material. She transformed the learning experience by breaking the unspoken norms that had excluded the knowledge and experiences of some students.

Recommitting to Inclusive Institutions

The Association of American Colleges and Universities has argued that we must “educate for a just and equitable future” (Schneider 2007). Fulfilling this commitment undoubtedly involves cultivating a deeper understanding of how social class shapes lives and institutions. By examining our practices through a class-based lens, we can develop more complex understandings of diversity and more integrated, inclusive learning experiences for our students.

A commitment to educating the whole student requires knowing who students are, what challenges they face, and what experiences they bring to college. Educators must develop cultural competency skills to effectively facilitate across difference. Institutions, too, must develop policies and programs that support warmer climates for working-class students, including orientation and transition programs that help working-class students learn the unwritten rules of college. And students, regardless of their class identity, must develop knowledge and cultural competence that includes an understanding of class.

As we make these changes in our institutions, we must recognize that class perspectives, like those related to race and gender, offer a critical lens for our work. Though a great deal of work related to race and gender remains, we have made some progress related to these issues thanks in large part to perspectives provided by new ways of seeing and new disciplines. Forty years ago, formal women’s studies programs did not exist. Today the discipline has shaped pedagogical approaches, institutional practices, and even what counts as knowledge. Imagine what might be possible if working-class studies did the same.

By inviting class culture to influence our practice and pedagogy—and by opening up the discussion about class on campus, as this issue of Diversity & Democracy attempts to do—we can assist students in tapping their unique class positions as a source of power and prepare them to become class-conscious leaders in the world at large. In doing so, we answer Laura Rendón’s call “to create a new consciousness in the academic borderlands—one that heals, one that connects diverse cultures, languages, realities, and ways of knowing” (1996).


Alves, J. 2006. Class struggles. Chronicle of Higher Education 53 (8): B5.

Bee, H. L. 1987. The journey of adulthood. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

hooks, b. 2000. Where we stand: Class matters. New York: Routledge.

Linkon, S. 1999. Teaching working class. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Rendón, L. I. 1992. From the barrio to the academy: Revelations of a Mexican American “scholarship girl.” In L.S. Zwerling & H. B. London (Eds.), First-generation students: confronting the cultural issues (pp 55-64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schneider, C. G. 2007. Civic learning in a diverse democracy: Education for shared futures. Diversity & Democracy 10:3.

Zandy, J. 1996. Decloaking class: Why class identity and consciousness count. Race, Gender & Class 5 (1): 7-23. 

Susan E. Borrego is the vice president for planning and enrollment management at California State University-Dominguez Hills.

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