College Choice and the Success of Working-Class Students

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.

Sherry Linkon

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14 Responses to College Choice and the Success of Working-Class Students

  1. Pingback: Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality? | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. Kthx says:

    In many ways I find that you are suggesting people break the bonds of Family and their Support Network to amass a greater debt, which seems rather callous in this time of uncertainty. I am reminded of this other article about student debt which touches upon this very same theme:

    “… Although she is working as a full-time teacher, the Debtor admitted that ‘it would be possible’ for her to get a paying summer job. The bankruptcy court found that the Debtor was capable of summer employment and attributed to her additional net income of $100 per month.” No matter that the unpaid care work she performed over the summer months was a crucial source of support for her daughter, a single mother. For these Gradgrinds, the bonds of family and the imperatives of caretaking are, as Marx so vividly put it, to be drowned in the icy waters of egotistical calculation.”


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  4. Anon says:

    Even if they do graduate, it’s no party with student debt.


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  6. Alisa says:

    Upon reading this post and its many comments for the second time, I have a few issues with Bobby’s response. First, going away to school is often not an option for working-class students unless ALL expenses are covered (as it is with the Leslie F. Cochran scholarship at YSU). I attended YSU because I was in the BS/MD program (a highly selective program in consortium with the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine) and decided to stay when I changed my major. The point of this is that I stayed at YSU, in part, because of necessity — I wanted to transfer to Smith College or Case Western but couldn’t because, though I had received substantial funding from these schools, I couldn’t afford books, study abroad, etc. Also, I knew the environment there would have been very alienating, and when someone is consistently focused on staying quiet for fear of being unmasked as poor or working-class at more selective colleges and Universities, it’s hard to focus on attending to your own interests, academic or otherwise.

    Also, the problem is not that there are associations/clubs for every student BUT working-class students. It’s important that we remember that a disproportionate number of women, non-whites, queers, and immigrants comprise the working-class, particularly at this moment in history. To say that the only group left out is the working-class is to reinforce an association of “working-class” with “white.” What needs to change is how people see themselves in relation to others — getting poor and working-class Blacks to recognize commonalities among poor and working-class Whites by virtue of their shared experiences with class.

    Thanks for posting and for such thought-provoking posts.


  7. laurie clements says:

    I found this very interesting and perceptive. It reminds me of how cultural capital is unevenly divided and is not separated from the individual and how working class experience of education is connected to the forces that shape the daily lives. And as labor educators we always should start where people are not where we think (for whatever reason) they should be. Thanks for posting.


  8. Mark Cassell says:

    Money is clearly an issue for working class students. However, my experience at Kent is more complicated than what the post presents. An additional problem, is that working class students feel like they have to work while they are in school. Even when they could take out a loan they instead believe they have to work. Some hold more than one job. I understand that working a side job is often necessary. But I thing two things result from the part time work which hurt students’ chances to finish and succeeded in college: 1) they don’t have enough time and energy to do their school work which leads to mediocre performance, frustration, and dropping out; and 2) the more students work the more they define themselves in terms of their part-time job and less as a student. I see this often. Students will brag about the hours they put in at a restaurant. They come to see success in terms of a pay check and not in terms of completing an assignment or achieving a degree some time in the future. If they come from a working class family the view is more likely to be endorsed by friends and family. So the money pressures are complicated.


  9. Bobby says:

    Programs like Wisconsin-Madison’s WCSU, The Posse Foundation, among others are invaluable and incredibly encouraging. As a friend of mine put it, class seems to be the “final frontier” of inclusion on college campuses; there doesn’t seem to be a scarcity of LGBT and African-American (among a multitude of other ethnicities) alliances and associations on campuses, but few consider the material and social realities of class outside of classroom scholarship. As I wrote in the Chronicle essay, the social obstacles a working-class student encounters at many universities can be quite, well, ostracizing — and most of the Otherness remains a tacit frustration. Projects that create working-class communities, like Wisconsin-Madison’s WCSU, should indeed be applauded for their efforts in fostering empathy and a sense of class community. Even more, they should be supported and recreated on campuses nationwide. It’s a way to tackle the social realm of the working-class divide head-on.

    Specifically, what would be effective? I’m more interesting in setting up any sort of program that encourages working-class comraderie and shared experience than mapping the metrics. Because to me, something as banal as getting together for coffee a few times a semester with other working-class students would be valuable. The details would work out once the program is installed.

    I couldn’t agree more with the factors Sherry highlights regarding working-class graduation rates. I can think of a few bright kids from my hometown who “undermatched” to be close to home; it feels safer; it’s more comfortable; it’s almost the default option. And among those working-class students who went to local schools, the dropouts are numbered. Because both of the downward pressure of familial life and, at least in my case, inescapable peer circles that can perpetuate old habits and maintain complacency.

    If you’re the only one among your peers in college, it’s gonna be tough to stick it out. These kids see quickly that most of their neighborhood friends have chosen work-related career paths. And college feels economically stangnant compared to the paycheck-wielding others.

    If I had one piece of advice for a prospective working class student it would be to venture to a school away from home. It’ll bless and educate in ways that won’t be calcuable until a few years into college. Getting away from home encourages new habits, forces resourcefulness, builds connections, and emboldens one with a new and fresh perspective.


  10. Pingback: Social Class Links 10/21/2009 « Education and Class

  11. Pingback: College Choice and the Success of Working-Class Students « Working … | Class update today

  12. Chynna Haas says:

    Thanks for the post, Sherry! Thank you janko for the comment!

    I am the Founder and President of the Working Class Student Union (WCSU) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    We offer several services, resources, and events through our organization. The most essential component of our organization is that it was founded by working class students as a space for ourselves. This is essential for future replication of the organization, particularly if you are working on a campus like ours where working class students are the minority.

    I met two women almost two years ago right after I founded WCSU. The women had created an organization for first-generation college students, but it fell apart within several months because they struggled with creating programs and identifying essential services. After several discussions with them, it became apparent that they were struggling because neither founder was a first-generation college student.

    Specifically related to our services, I would encourage folks to replicate the basics–advocacy and educational workshops. Our advocacy program is two-fold. One portion of it is a peer-to-peer support program that allows students to request a one-on-one advocacy session about any topic they are struggling with. We then schedule them with a trained (we do the training) advocacte who meets with them for 15-30 minutes. The second portion of this program is providing trained advocates who can attend difficult meetings with students. This component came out of concern for things that our financial aid reps and professors were saying to students. The advocate meets with the student before the meeting to identify the goal of the meeting, brainstorm the list of their questions, and prepare for how the meeting will occur. Then the advocate goes with the individual to their meeting. They often do not speak, but are there for moral support and to witness what occurs in the meeting.

    Another service that I think is necessary for organizations, though somewhat difficult to create at first, is an educational workshop. Given working class students’ minority status on this campus, we use our educational workshop to train majority students on class issues. We are able to tailor this workshop to the specific needs of the students, organizations, departments, or housing unit.

    Funding obviously varies from campus to campus, but our advocacy program and educational workshop are the two primary reasons we are able to receive funding from our student government. The funding covers overhead, programs, and 4 student staff positions.

    I also want to acknowledge that our organization serves all students through its educational outreach, but works specifically to support working class students, non-traditional students, and first-generation college students.

    I apologize for this long answer, but I hope it helped. Please feel free to email me at with any questions, comments, or ideas.



  13. janko says:

    good post.

    what are the best practices offered out of all they offer at Wisconsin-Madison that can be replicated across the country?


  14. Pingback: College Choice and the Success of Working-Class Students « Working … | College Education, Books and Loans

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