Supporting students from a class perspective

An interesting article in today’s NY Times: Poor Students Struggle as Class Plays a Greater Role in Success  (alternatively titled as “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in Hard Fall”)

I write about class a lot because it’s one of the few things I feel secure in my knowledge. When we think about class in terms of college, we often think about the financial aid piece. Universities have made great progress in meeting the financial needs of low-income student, but there are still nuances about growing up poor that are forgotten. It’s beyond the ability to pay for college. This article does a good job discussing the complex socio-economic influences in our lives. There is this cultural difference that exists between classes which people often forget or deny. As academics, it’s important that we are aware of these differences and able to support students coming from low-income families.

From the article: Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college.

“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.”

This is a critical statement in understanding the experiences and needs of many students who come from low-income families. I’m sure there are many reasons students may not ask for help. For me, I often didn’t know what kind of help existed or that it was ok to ask for help. There was also overwhelming feelings of shame in needing help or the idea of being a bother.

I don’t know what the solution is or how to ease the transition to college, but I think it’s something we need to keep thinking and talking about. A start might be to move away from this idea of “first generation college student” to actually acknowledging class differences. There are many older academics who are “first generation college students” but mostly like from middle class families. Especially any of those academics who graduated college prior to the 1990s. If you are 60 years old and a first generation college student, you probably come from a middle class background. The poor kids went to Vietnam. So, your experiences as a first generation college student are probably quite different than your students. Trying to identify with them in those terms misses the point. As a person who comes from anti-oppressive practice point of view,  I intentionally discuss class in the same ways I intentionally discuss race, gender, and sexual orientation. I hope this serves several purposes. First, to highlight some of the nuances of class that middle or upper middle class people may not get. Second, to indirectly share with students who may be from low income families that I may be someone who understands their struggle. Finally, I hope it gets people talking about class in the ways that we talk about other experiences of oppression within the context of academic experiences and successes.

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