Recent Research on Socioeconomic Status and Higher Education

Socioeconomic status has very real effects on student access and success in higher education. Several recent reports have underscored the challenges facing low-income and working-class students, providing useful data for advocates of class-attentive policies and practices.

Demography is Not Destiny: Increasing the Graduation Rates of Low-Income College Students at Large Public Universities

Authors Jennifer Engle and Colleen O’Brien examined fourteen public institutions that serve high numbers of low-income students to determine what practices best support student retention. Their report provides several recommendations for institutions, states, and the federal government to improve graduation rates for low-income students. Engle and O’Brien identify common features of institutions with higher graduation rates (including high levels of student involvement and special programs for at-risk students), as well as barriers to taking advantage of support programs (such as cost and students’ limited awareness of opportunities). They dispute the idea that “excellence” and “access” are mutually exclusive and encourage institutions to recommit themselves to serving the public. To download the report, visit

Missing in Application: The Texas Top 10 Percent Law and Campus Socioeconomic Diversity

In a paper presented at the March 2008 meeting of the American Educational Research Association, authors Dawn Koffman and Marta Tienda examine the effects of Texas’s “Top 10 Percent Law,” passed in response to bans on affirmative action and in effect since 1998. The law has aimed to increase diversity at Texas’s public colleges by guaranteeing admission to the top ten percent of graduating seniors from each high school, thus opening the gates to students at low-income-serving high schools. Examining application rates at the state’s flagship institutions, Koffman and Tienda find that despite the admissions guarantee, students from low-resource high schools remain significantly less likely to apply than their more affluent peers. The authors stress the need to encourage low-income students, who frequently lack support or information about the application process, to apply to college. Their paper is available at


Source: National Center for Education Statistics. 2008. Digest of Education
Statistics: 2007, Table 136. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
(accessed July 24, 2008).

Does Diversity Matter in the Education Process?

In this March 2008 occasional paper for the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, author Steve Chatman takes up the Supreme Court’s implied challenge in Grutter v. Bollinger to more clearly substantiate a “compelling interest” in the educational benefits of diversity. Using a survey of students in the University of California system, Chatman illustrates that at the University of California (one of the most diverse higher education systems in the country), over 40 percent of students report developing greater understanding of others through interactions with those unlike themselves. Analysis by socioeconomic status shows that poor and wealthy students are more likely than middle-class students to report interactions with those outside of their socioeconomic class, and low-income students are least likely of all socioeconomic groups to report feeling a sense of belonging. To read the complete paper, including data on race, gender, religion, and political beliefs, visit

Family Income and Higher Education Opportunity 1970 to 2006

Postsecondary Education Opportunity’s June 2008 issue examines educational opportunity by socioeconomic income quartile and finds that students in the upper income quartile earn more than 50 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded by age twenty-four. In fact, students in the upper quartile have a 72 percent chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four, compared with only a 10 percent chance for students in the lowest quartile. The newsletter breaks down attainment rates by quartile from high school graduation through bachelor’s attainment, challenging the federal census bureau’s decision to discontinue the practice of reporting enrollment by income level. To access the full newsletter and monthly archives (available by subscription only), visit

Window of Opportunity: Targeting Federal Grant Aid to Students with the Lowest Incomes

In February 2008, the Institute for Higher Education Policy released a report on the effectiveness of federal Pell Grants, typically awarded to students with annual family incomes of $40,000 or less. Finding that Pell Grant aid has not kept pace with rising college costs, the report recommends policy changes to make college affordable to students in lower income brackets. These changes include raising the maximum award amount, better targeting students in the lowest income brackets, and allowing a negative expected family contribution. Although recommendations may have less application for on-campus practitioners, data about student award allocation are useful for anyone concerned with the financial challenges facing students. To download the report, visit

Suggestions for Additional Reading about Socioeconomic Class 

Adams, M., L. Bell, and P. Griffin, Eds. 1977. Teaching for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. New York: Routledge.

Adams, M., W. Blumefeld, R. Castaneda, H. Hackman, M. Peters, and X Zuniga, Eds. 2000. Readings for diversity and social justice: A sourcebook. New York: Routledge.

Andersen, M. L., and P. H. Collins. 2001. Race, class, and gender: An anthology (4th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Archer, L., M. Hutchings, and A. Ross. 2003. Higher education and social class: Issues of exclusion and inclusion. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Aronowitz, S. 2003. How class works. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Borrego, S. 2003. Class matters: Beyond access to inclusion. Washington, DC: National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Collins, P. 1998. Toward a new vision: Race, class, and gender as categories of analysis and connection. In J. Ferrante and P. Brown (Eds.), The social construction of race and ethnicity in the United States (pp. 478-495). New York: Addison-Wesley.

Hill, M. 1996. We can’t afford it: Confusions and silences on the topic of class. Classism and feminist therapy: Counting costs [Special Issue], Women & Therapy, 18 (3/4): 1-5.

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

Kingston-Mann, E. 2001. Three steps forward, one step back: Dilemmas of upward mobility. In E. Kingston-Mann and T. Sieber (Eds.), Achieving against the odds: How academics become teachers of diverse students. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Levine, A., and J. Nidiffer. 1996. Beating the odds: How the poor get to college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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

London, H. 1996. How college affects first generation students. About Campus, 9-23.

Lubrano, A. 2004. Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white collar dreams. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Metzgar, J. 2000. Striking steel: Solidarity remembered. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

McDonough, P. 1997. Choosing colleges: How social class and schools structure opportunity. New York: State University of New York Press.

New York Times. 2005. Class matters. New York: Times Books.

Oldfield, K., and R. Johnson III, Eds. 2008. Resilience: Queer professors from the working class. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. Forthcoming.

Pascarella, E., and P. Terenzini. 1991. How college affects students. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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

Russo, J., and S. Linkon. 2005. New working-class studies. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Sennett, R., and J. Cobb. 1972. The hidden injuries of class. New York: Knopf.

Terenzini, P., S. Springer, P. Yaeger, E. Pascarella, and A. Nora. 1996. First generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher Education, 37 (1): 1-22.

Zandy, J. 1990. Calling home: Working-class women’s writings. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Zandy, J. 1995. Liberating memory: Our work and working-class consciousness. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Zweig, M. 2004. What’s class got to do with it? American society in the twenty-first century. Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press.

Zwerling, L. S., and H. B. London, Eds. 1992. First generation students: Confronting the cultural issues. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.                               


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