Improving Working-Class Education

Conventional wisdom tells us that these days everyone has to go to college.  It’s become what high school once was:  the basic requirement for employment. That may be an exaggeration, but even if college isn’t absolutely necessary, it does increase earning power.  At its best, it also increases people’s understanding of politics and culture, making them better able to stand up for their own interests.  Good education for working-class people is not just a matter of economics.

But it’s dreams of economic opportunity that drive both the government and parents to encourage more working-class kids to go to college.  Elite schools, such as Harvard, have been offering free tuition to students with lower family incomes, part of an effort to foster economic diversity on their campuses. Colleges around the country are talking about how to improve access and admission rates for students from lower-income families.

But working-class students need more than access, as many of the contributors to Teaching Working Class noted a decade ago.  Whether they attend elite schools or community colleges, working-class students benefit from working with faculty and staff who understand their culture and recognize that being working class bring assets as well as challenges.  The practical, straight-talk attitudes of working-class students can help them thrive in school, and what they lack in traditional cultural capital may be balanced by common sense and awareness of how to get things done.

Class does create challenges for students.  For some, juggling family life, work life, and school simply adds up to too much to do in too little time.  Because working-class culture values family and community connections, working-class students often feel torn between the needs of their families and the demands of school work.  An ailing grandparent, a sister whose babysitter didn’t show up, or a friend who’s going through a difficult divorce – these and other personal crises often take working-class students away from the classroom.

For others, going to college creates internal tensions.  It may come as a surprise to some professional-class people, but many working-class people don’t see us as positive role models.  We’re the problem.  We do useless, non-productive work for which we get paid too much.  We have book learning instead of common sense.  We take ourselves way too seriously.  Imagine what it must feel like to come to college, which is supposed to transform you into a professional-class person, from a culture that views professionals with suspicion. And, of course, college does change you.  Many working-class students report feeling guilty about how much they love going to college as well as feeling lonely because they no longer fit in as comfortably with their families and friends back home.

Add to all of this the self-doubt that comes with seeing yourself as an outsider, worrying that you don’t really have the right or the intelligence to be here, professors and peers who denigrate working-class culture, persistent worries about paying for tuition and books, and college becomes an obstacle course.

A few faculty at elite schools are noticing the working-class students in their courses, and they’re asking questions about what those students bring to the classroom and what they need from their professors.  The latest issue of the Diversity Digest, published by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, focuses on class in higher education.  It includes reports on strategies for teaching about class, how class shapes the higher education system, and why academics should pay more attention to class.

While attending an elite school may provide a working-class student with terrific opportunities, community colleges and state comprehensive universities are the specialists in educating the working class.  A new report on community college education from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching identifies strategies that work, including high structure and significant challenges, as well as assistance in developing learning habits such as the ability to monitor one’s own progress.  Although many community colleges already provide that kind of education, four-year programs also need to consider these issues.  After all, as Inside Higher Ed reported recently, students who start college at a four-year institution are significantly more likely to complete a BA than those who begin at community colleges.  No doubt, educators need to find ways to improve the chances of those who begin at community colleges (which is the goal of Carnegie’s project on “strengthening pre-collegiate education”)), but if we want to provide high-quality education for working-class students, all types of institutions need to pay more attention.

These and other efforts to recognize and support working-class students can help us move beyond access to success.  Yes, we should support programs to increase the number of working-class people who attend college, but we also need parallel efforts to help them thrive.

Sherry Linkon

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3 Responses to Improving Working-Class Education

  1. Lulu says:

    This post encompasses many thoughts I have had since my years at a state university. When I arrived at OSU in 1996 I was a working-class white girl who grew up in Youngstown. I had achieved academic success in high school but OSU was a different world for me. I felt overwhelmed and alone in my situation – which forced me to work, return home often to help out, and to maintain relationships with those I grew up with. My classes were so large I got lost in the shuffle. I did not participate in college courses the way I did in high school because I was unsure of myself compared to my student peers who had outtraveled and outread me, and with whom my professors seemed to gravitate to in discussions. I felt invisible. Other groups connected by race and religion seemed to have assistance or at least student organizations to give them a sounding board or shoulder to lean on. I was an island. Of course I know in theory there were others out there like me – but there were no causes to bring us together, and class was something that made most of my peers very uncomfortable to discuss.

    I cannot wait for the day when assistance/support might be available for working class students like myself. I made it out, six years later & years of full-time work under my belt, with a BA in Economics of all things. I always wished I could have pursued education and research as my career path through a doctoral program, but my comfort with learning was stifled by my extreme anxiety around the academic environment. Not to mention, the higher the degree, the more the attitudes intensified. Please keep working to make any type of higher education more accessible and palatable to working class students!

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  2. Karen Weyant says:

    This is a great post. As someone who teaches at a community college, I have seen my students struggle to balance full time jobs, full courseloads, and families. I have also seen many of my students fail because we cannot provide them the support they need (either financial or emotional). Until more funding is given to community colleges to provide additional support (I work in the state of New York and our funding has been cut lower and lower every year), I know that I will continue to see this struggle, and I will continue to watch my students fail.

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  3. Jackie says:

    Interesting stuff. Is it true that the working class is more likely to put aside their coursework for personal relationships than others? Is this also true of the working class in the workplace? I’ve never seen this particular fact!

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