In recent years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about increasing college access for working-class students. As I have noted before, access is just the starting point. A new study by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, finds that while lower-income students may be entering college, they are less likely to graduate than their wealthier counterparts. (It’s worth noting here that their data focuses almost exclusively on income rather than other aspects of class.) At flagship universities, only 68% of lower-income students graduate in 6 years, compared with 83% of higher-income students. Across state systems, the numbers are even worse (for both groups): 55% of lower-income students finish in 6 years, while 74% of higher-income students graduate in that time.
Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson identify two primary causes for this disparity. The first, money, seems obvious. Especially these days, as workers lose jobs amid the economic crisis, working-class students and their families are more vulnerable to tuition increases as well as other rising college costs, such as books, transportation, and housing. As states defund higher education, many colleges have responded by raising tuition and other fees, and we shouldn’t be at all surprised that some working-class students drop out, at least for a while. Working-class families tend to have less wealth to help them get through a tough economic period, so often students’ only option when faced with either lost family income or increased college costs is to drop out of school.
But the other reason offered in Crossing the Finish Line is more surprising: the authors suggest that lower-income students often “undermatch” in their college choices. That is, they tend to enroll in less-selective institutions than they could. Students with family incomes in the lowest quartile and/or whose parents did not attend college are the most likely to choose a less-selective and the authors therefore surmise less demanding college than their test scores and high school grades suggest they could. While this choice seems to puzzle the authors, it actually makes perfect sense to me.
Many working-class families have limited knowledge about the landscape of higher education, so they may not recognize the differences among types of institutions. Working-class students may also choose less-selective schools because they are closer to home, less expensive, or offer aid packages that cover more of the cost of attending school. For others, undermatching may reflect self-doubt about whether they will succeed in college. Working-class students often have less confidence in their academic abilities than more well-off students have.
As someone who has taught at an open-enrollment university – exactly the kind of place that Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson would see as an “undermatch” for a bright working-class student – I have long believed that less prestigious campuses with many working-class students serve those students well because we are likely to provide a friendlier atmosphere, better support, and stronger faculty commitment to teaching working-class students. In some cases, such schools also provide more financial aid, and a scholarship at a lower-cost institution can go much further toward covering the cost of college.
Certainly, the experiences of working-class students on elite private or more-selective flagship campuses would support this notion. As Bobby Allyn notes in an essay on his experience as a working-class student at American University, such elite settings can be alienating. He advocates creating “spaces where like-minded students from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds can come together and foster a community,” exactly what the Working Class Student Union is doing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
So I was puzzled by the claim that undermatching could undermine students’ academic success. One reason might be that academic challenge yields better performance. A Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching study of student learning at community colleges advocates for asking more of our students rather than less. Faculty who teach working-class students are often tempted to make their courses a little easier than they would at a more elite school. After all, we know that many of our students come from high schools that didn’t offer strong college prep programs. Many are also working long hours to pay for school, or commuting long distances to avoid the cost of campus housing. We’re also concerned about the challenges that single parents face in juggling school, work, and family. Because we want to help students succeed, we ask a little less. This study suggests that we may be cheating them.
While feeling like an outsider creates emotional and social obstacles for working-class students, it might also work as an academic motivator. Such students want to prove that they do belong among their more elite peers, so they may work harder just to “show them,” while on a more working-class campus, they fit in and may feel less of a need to demonstrate their full abilities. Indeed, working-class schools may even encourage this, as strong networks of support services to help students get through college can communicate, inadvertently, that the goal is to get through, not to excel. Because middle-class culture emphasizes individual success and competition, more elite campuses may, in contrast, create a stronger atmosphere of achievement.
Another key difference in the educational experiences of working-class students who attend more selective schools and those who undermatch is geographical. Attending a selective school is, in many cases, more likely to involve moving away from home. Allyn’s experience is typical, as he went first from Pennsylvania to Ithaca, New York, and later to Washington, DC. Why would leaving home help? After all, going away to school usually means leaving behind a family support system. On the other hand, that very support system can leave working-class students feeling torn between the competing demands of school, which is an essentially individual pursuit, and family, which reflects the greater commitment to the communal that is often part of working-class culture. When students live near home, the pull of family commitments can often interfere with their school work. As one of my students explained a few years ago, she had to miss classes for two weeks because her sister was having surgery and she had to look after her young nieces and nephews. It may well be that families are less likely to make demands on working-class students, and students may be less likely to respond to family needs, if they’re living on a campus more than a few hours’ drive away.
While all of this may explain why working-class students are more likely to graduate if they attend a more selective college, it doesn’t solve the problem. The real challenge posed by this study is to less selective, more working-class institutions: how can we do a better job of helping students succeed? Stay tuned. I’ll take up that question next time.