Bridging the Divide: Addressing Social Class Disparities in Higher Education

The system of higher education in the United States is highly stratified, with social class divides at nearly every touchpoint of students’ educational experiences. Decisions about whether to attend college are often based on students’ social class—manifested in students’ preparation for higher education, ability to afford tuition, and familial expectations or support. Decisions about where to attend college are further suffused with class-based connotations associated with institutional prestige and rigor.

Social classes are defined as social categories that include measures of socioeconomic status interwoven with social forces such as power, culture, prestige, and socialization (Soria 2018). Students from lower social class backgrounds face significant structural challenges in higher education compared with their middle- and upper-class peers. We need to acknowledge and address these disparities to create welcoming, inclusive, accessible campuses where students from all social class backgrounds can thrive.

Disparities by Class

Structural disparities among students from different class backgrounds start early and run deep. Even as high school sophomores, students from high socioeconomic status backgrounds (as measured by parents’ occupations, parents’ education, and family income) are more than twice as likely to expect to earn advanced degrees as students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (52 percent compared with 22 percent). High school seniors from high socioeconomic status backgrounds are much more likely to obtain college information from their parents (76 percent compared with 46 percent of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds) and are four times more likely to score in the highest quartile for reading and mathematics achievement. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to drop out of high school without earning a high school diploma (7 percent) or complete only a high school degree (21 percent) compared with students from high socioeconomic status backgrounds (1 percent and 3 percent, respectively) (National Center for Education Statistics 2015).

All those factors culminate in greater structural advantages for students from high socioeconomic status backgrounds, rendering higher education complicit in an ongoing system of classism. The direct effects of systemic classism are striking: 60 percent of students from high socioeconomic status backgrounds earned a bachelor’s degree or higher within eight years of enrollment, compared with just 14 percent of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds (National Center for Education Statistics 2015).

A Look at Community Colleges

Even within the more affordable and accessible two-year public community colleges, students from lower social class backgrounds are less successful than students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. Although nearly half of dependent college students who are first-generation or from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds enroll in two-year public colleges (National Center for Education Statistics 2016), only 14 percent of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds earn an associate’s degree in six years, compared with 20 percent of students from high socioeconomic backgrounds (Ma and Baum 2016).

For many high-income students, community college is a stepping stone to a four-year degree; however, community college is a stopping point for many low-income students. Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds who first enroll in community colleges are twice as likely to earn a four-year degree as students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who first enroll in community colleges (34 percent compared with 15 percent) (National Center for Education Statistics 2015). Overall, students from low-income backgrounds are much more likely to attend institutions that have lower graduation rates for all students (Nichols 2015), compounding the barriers they face.

Acknowledging Social Class Differences

To disrupt the trends that perpetuate privilege among the middle and upper classes, we need to first acknowledge that class power and classism permeate the academy. Social class affects every student, whether positively or negatively. While campuses have devoted significant resources to diversity-related efforts, including creating multicultural student centers, hiring chief diversity officers, and offering courses on cultural identities, those endeavors rarely focus on social class as a critical element of individuals’ identities.

Claims that students should be able to graduate from college by their own efforts constitute microaggressions for students marginalized by social class. Such claims are laden with assumptions that students who do not graduate must not possess the grit, skills, intelligence, or drive to overcome hurdles. We perpetuate class privilege when we neglect to recognize the intersectional effects of social class on students’ experiences. Instead, we should be honoring the strengths of students from lower social class backgrounds, including their resiliency, insights into issues of equity and justice through their lived experiences, and values of interdependence—being responsive to the needs of others, working cooperatively, and giving back to their communities or families (Stephens, Fryberg, and Markus 2012)—especially at a time when collective action is essential to resolving social issues. The focus on independent agency in higher education often negates the interdependent cultural orientations of low-income students and has a detrimental impact on their academic performance (Stephens et al. 2012).

After naming social class as a predominant diversity issue, administrators, staff, and faculty can help students identify how social class shapes their experiences. Faculty, staff, and administrators who promote middle-class cultural expectations for educational success—including independence and the ability to challenge conventions and engage confidently in situations of academic ambiguity—unwittingly construct a hidden curriculum that can seem foreign to low-income students (Stephens, Markus, and Phillips 2014) and can exacerbate their feelings that they are “imposters” (Soria 2015). Naming these issues as class-based—attributing differences in students’ collegiate experiences to their social class backgrounds—and providing students with examples of strategies to mediate those experiences can help reduce social class achievement gaps (Stephens, Hamedani, and Destin 2014).

Engaging students in understanding the roots of their social class differences can be empowering for all students, who can benefit from hearing diverse perspectives and appreciating differences (Stephens, Hamedani, and Destin 2014). Highlighting differences based on social class in a constructive manner can challenge the middle- and upper-class norms of higher education institutions and disrupt the ways in which those assumptions stigmatize lower-class cultures, ways of knowing, and experiences. As they have overcome social and economic obstacles on their educational journeys, students from lower social class backgrounds demonstrate the type of tenacity vital to communities, campuses, and the workforce. Furthermore, students from lower social class backgrounds possess the ability to connect with others from diverse worldviews, given their “firsthand knowledge of the challenges faced by the majority of people” (White 2016). Using strengths-based language to reframe low-income students’ qualities can benefit students’ engagement, efficacy, sense of belonging, and retention (Soria et al. 2017; Soria and Stubblefield 2014, 2015).

It may be even more important to name class-based differences in the most marginalized spaces in academia: as discussed above, marginalized students (e.g., low-income, first-generation) who attend marginalized institutions (e.g., community colleges) with higher proportions of marginalized faculty (e.g., adjuncts) are less likely to be successful (Soria 2016). The same may be true of regional public institutions, rural institutions, or for-profit or nonprofit online schools that employ a majority of adjunct faculty. We must address classism at all institutional levels to help all students thrive.

Creating Welcoming, Accessible Campuses

One way to normalize social class differences is to ask faculty and staff who identify as coming from first-generation or low-income backgrounds to share their personal experiences navigating higher education systems with students in class or in advising meetings. Faculty and staff may not only develop deeper connections with first-generation or low-income students who can see them as models of success, but may also foster inclusive environments by improving all students’ comfort with social class differences.

Students from lower social class backgrounds deserve more formal opportunities to legitimize their presence on campus. Institutions should create centers or student organizations to connect students with peers and institutional agents (including academic advisors, student affairs professionals, and faculty); provide support and resources; and empower students to organize for change. When low-income and first-generation students feel validated in the academy, they may be less isolated, more confident (especially in their academic abilities), and more likely to achieve success (Rendόn 1994). These formal spaces can make students feel valued for their presence, a critical factor because students from lower social class backgrounds are more likely to experience a negative campus climate for social class than their peers (Soria 2012). As an example of such a space, the Working Class Student Union at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is a student-led collective that advocates for institutional change, provides resources to students, and educates the university on the benefits of social class diversity.

We must also attend to the overwhelming cost of college attendance for students from low-income backgrounds. Over 50 percent of low-income students who chose not to enroll in college indicated that they made this decision because they could not afford to attend (National Center for Education Statistics 2006). However, significant numbers (15 to 37 percent) of low-income and first-generation students did not apply for financial aid even when they enrolled in higher education (National Center for Education Statistics 2016), suggesting that more work is needed to connect students to financial aid opportunities. In addition, institutional agents should connect low-income students to meaningful, higher-wage employment on- or off-campus and offer programs such as free book rentals that can save costs for all students.

There are additional costs of college attendance: over 50 percent of low-income students reported that they chose not to attend college because they needed to help support their families (National Center for Education Statistics 2006). For many low-income and first-generation students, earning a degree means disconnecting from family members and home communities. Structured opportunities to help low-income students integrate their families into their college life may include family events with free childcare, heavily discounted lodging or travel costs, free career development events, or networking opportunities to connect low-income students and their families with college staff or faculty. Better yet, we should honor parents’ rich skills and abilities by inviting them to teach us something. For instance, when I was a first-generation college student and an undergraduate resident assistant, I invited my mother to teach my residence hall students first aid and CPR. This small gesture validated my mother’s skills and lessened the educational divide between us.

There is no one solution to better support students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds—a constellation of activities is required to combat the effects of societal and institutional classism. We need to recognize the systemic ways in which we are overlooking a large contingency of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, even amid our efforts to support equity and diversity, and we need to give voice to those students and honor their strengths.


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Krista M. Soria is Student Affairs Research and Assessment Associate, Office of Institutional Research at the University of Minnesota.

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