A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

Two years ago, after 22 years of teaching mostly working-class students at Youngstown State University, I moved to Georgetown University, where most of my students come from very privileged backgrounds. Many people have asked about the differences between the two groups of students. Most seem to assume that students at Georgetown are significantly better – and more satisfying to teach – than those at YSU. As with anything, though, it’s complicated.

In some ways, teaching at Georgetown is easier than it was at Youngstown. But that’s not because the students are smarter or more capable. It’s all about privilege. Although about 12% of Georgetown students come from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds, more than 40% come from families that can afford around $50,000 a year in tuition and board. At YSU, tuition is less than $8000 a year and 96% of students receive financial aid. Most also work to help pay their tuition, often more than 20 hours a week, and usually in food service or retail jobs. To save money, they live at home, even if that means a 50-mile drive to campus every day. To take advantage of a flat tuition rate over a certain number of credit hours per term, they take as many classes each term as they can. Add together the hours of work and commuting plus five or six courses, and it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to complete the reading, do more than a rushed first draft of a paper, or participate in campus activities.

At Georgetown, many fewer students wrestle with the same challenges. Nearly all of them live on campus, and while they miss their families, most are too far from home to even consider helping their families with things like babysitting or going home for weddings or funerals of neighbors or second cousins, as working-class students do when they go to college close to home. But that doesn’t mean that Georgetown students aren’t busy. Indeed, many Georgetown students embrace a culture of busy-ness (as seen in a student-made video that circulated last year, with the telling title “Sleep When You’re Dead”), but theirs is a chosen busy-ness, not a matter of survival, as it is for so many YSU students. Instead of working and commuting, they are more likely to take extra courses to complete a second major or to devote hours to volunteering, often on social justice projects. For them, economic struggle is something to work on, not the everyday reality of their lives.

Money, time, and choice all matter, of course, but so does cultural capital. Many Georgetown students come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects. Some have worked, volunteered, or attended school in several countries. Others spoke or wrote about the pleasures of visiting museums or attending the theater with their families. All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.

YSU students bring a different kind of cultural capital into the classroom. They have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices. Others have overcome addiction, watched their parents deal with lay-offs, lived with poverty, or been to war. This makes them tough, determined, and very practical. In many cases, it also makes them suspicious of the University as an institution and doubtful about their own capabilities. Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.

Institutional cultures reinforce students’ expectations. For most of my time there, YSU accepted anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio. While that brought in many students for whom college was a real stretch, the University also had plenty of highly qualified students who could have attended more prestigious schools. Like many working-class students, they “undermatched,” a choice that, as William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson suggest in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, might actually make them less likely to graduate.  Some would have done better at a place like Georgetown, which accepts only about 17% of applicants every year, more than half of whom graduated first or second in their high school classes. Georgetown students see themselves not merely as successful but as among the best. That fosters a competitive campus culture that values excellence and high standards, which is both productive and problematic. That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the smaller, more elite institution also devotes significant attention to advising and monitoring students. Registration is carefully managed, so students rarely take classes they don’t need, and faculty teaching first-year courses have to file midterm advisory grades. A student earning a C on a first paper will be called in for a chat with an advisor. In contrast, while YSU’s Center for Student Progress provides extensive peer mentoring and tutoring to students who are struggling, many students choose not to get help. For some, though, squeezing a mentoring session into an overloaded schedule seems impossible, while others seem to see the offer of help as evidence that they don’t really belong in college. Despite the effort, only 34% of YSU students graduate within six years. At Georgetown, almost everyone completes their degree in four years.

For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, and that distinction matters when I think about the value of my work as a teacher. At Georgetown, students say “thank you, Professor” at the end of every class, but I think I made a bigger difference at YSU, where students who didn’t expect it got excited about ideas and gained confidence in themselves as thinkers and writers. They brought working-class experience and perspectives into the classroom, and they reminded me to always connect their learning with their lives.

In that way, they taught me. As I wrote 15 years ago in the introduction to Teaching Working Class, I got involved in working-class studies because I wanted to understand my students better. My privileged background makes me more like my Georgetown students, but my working-class students, together with colleagues in working-class studies, have taught me not only about how class works for those from the working class but also how it shapes the perspectives of the more privileged students I teach now. They also taught me how important it is to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.

Sherry Linkon

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19 Responses to A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

  1. Pingback: Class. Privilege. Education. | Creative Infrastructure

  2. Jack Labusch says:

    I attended both less selective and more selective schools.

    At the more selective school, our economics class was presented a queuing/time preference/rationing-type problem. What was the right wage to offer someone to stand in line for tickets for travel or entertainment while you, Mr. Big, went about your high-income job? Chris L., a classmate and scion of a wealthy mining family, argued for $X, a very modest amount that fit in with standard-issue homo economicus stuff.

    I countered very inexpertly that a higher wage would be needed. Lacking courage, I didn’t mention that some desperate working stiffs would likely be so repelled at having a few short-term/no-future dollars dangled in front of them, they might well tell Mr. Big where to go unless he offered premium pay. I’m not sure Chris would have understood that even folks in the lower pay grades make judgments about the quality of their employment, and I didn’t quite know how to phrase the idea.

    Still, there were plenty of good and very bright people at the more selective school.


    • DebD. says:

      I went to a community college and then transferred to Georgetown in 2012. I remember that very same example in my principles class. Even though I was 47 years old at the same I took the class, the concept of paying someone to stand in line for you blew my mind.


  3. Lynda Lopez says:

    Great piece. I wonder if you noticed differences between working class students at Georgetown versus at YSU. As a low-income, first-gen student college graduate of UChicago, I very much believe that elite schools are advantageous but still don’t sufficiently support students from underprivileged backgrounds. We tend to idealize elite schools, so those particular stories get lost. What are your thoughts on working class students at elite schools, if any?


  4. Brianne DiBacco says:

    Dr. Linkon–I studied with you at YSU and your class put a name on my struggles as a first generation, WC student and truly helped guide my career and my studies.


    • Roy Wilson says:

      It would be interesting, at least to me, if you could elaborate on how Sherry’s course helped guide your career. I too am from the WC.


      • Brianne DiBacco says:

        I was already teaching part time at a community college while completing my MA at YSU when I took Dr. Linkon’s class. Class was not something that was ever discussed before for me–I went to a public rural high school in West Virginia and the a private college in Pittsburgh. While class obviously play a role in my life and education, I never thought to put a name on it but I often wondered why my peers (especially at college) seemed so much smarter than me, didn’t have to work to put themselves through school, or had a higher level of sophistication.

        Dr. Linkon’s class and her work allowed me to recognize aspects of my life and myself that I had otherwise struggled to identify or distinguish. It was in that classroom that I became much more accepting and appreciative of my history and opportunities.

        Since, I have continued teaching in higher education with a focus on developmental writing students. I have also continued to embrace my working class self and history, even as it separates me from many of my colleagues, as well as study, research, present, and advocate for other working class students who feel so misplaced in the ‘Ivory Tower’.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Roy Wilson says:



        I was never aware of class until I entered graduate school at a private university in Denver. Even then, I did not theorize class. Ironically, perhaps, I became conscious of the diverse meanings and dimensions of class in Pittsburgh when enrolled in a graduate program with a focus on working-class history. My particular biographical history has seemed more explicable since.


      • Sherry Linkon says:

        Thanks, Brianne! As I’m sure you know, there’s nothing better you can say about a class than that it made a difference.


  5. Tracy says:

    “For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, ” This is such a useful formulation, and depicts a dynamic I see playing out in my classroom at a school that is mixed-class and somewhere between these two schools on the spectrum. I also like the way you talk about the different types of cultural capital the two types of students bring with them. Some students from poverty- or working-class backgrounds have no idea what a college catalog or academic advisor is, which puts them at a disadvantage before classes even start. Thanks for writing this, Sherry.


  6. Jen says:

    As the parent of a high school senior in the “elite” category and a former Youngstown resident I found your perspective on point in many areas. I shared this post it with my daughter with the hope that she will have a greater appreciation of how fortunate she is to be able attend a most selective college.


  7. Roy Wilson says:

    I applaud you for writing this reflective piece. It is somewhat unusual, I think, for persons in working-class studies to announce it if they did not come from the working-class. If I am right, I think this reluctance reflects the stigma that many in the elite – unwittingly – associate with working-class origins. I also think that academics from the elite tend to denigrate expressions of anger in relation to social/economic class.

    You say: “All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.” Isn’t this often the formula for post-baccalaureate success in academia?

    You say: “That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.” I recur to my previous statement.

    You say: “[it is] important … to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.” Amen, sister.


  8. Melissa T. Smith says:

    Speaks for me, too as a product of a mulitgenerational, multi-degreed middle-class family, many members of the teaching profession. When I taught at Williams and Oberlin at the beginning of my career (ABD), I thought: “There is nothing these student won’t be able to learn without me, and then go on to the more interesting world of “DOING.” When I accepted the job at YSU, after consulting with as many people as possible and sneaking into town to check it out on my own BEFORE accepting, I thought that it had the requisite for a reasonable life: ethnic neighborhoods (was to serve in a (Department of Foreign Languages), U-U church (satsfying my New England WASP roots, and good amateur theater to get involved in. I saw my role as that of “missionary” of my discipline.

    But,as many missionaries discover, the natives believe that they can get on perfectly well without you. Indeed, they don’t have as much time to spend WITH you. And that “ethnic” and “cosmopolitan” are poles apart. My Russian language and cultural expertise aroused certain suspicions.

    When I first interviewed at YSU, the then-Dean of Arts and Sciences remarked, “Now you’re ready for a real JOB.” I, of course, thought that three years as a grad teaching assistant and three year full-time visiting instructorships at prestigious undergrad colleges HAD been “jobs” with considerable experience, but I hadn’t reailzed to what extent working at an open-enrollment university with predominantly working class students could feel very different from the professional calling that I supposed awaited me. Research in my field drew me farther away from my students; it was only when they become my research SUBJECT, or otherwise were integrated into my life that “job” and “profession” merged.

    I know that PHD’s from working-class families experience a different trajectory complete with different disillusionments. Well, we all are life-long learners.


  9. Rachel Stevens says:

    Thanks, Sherry, for confirming what I always suspected. Since I teach at a community college, most of my students come from poor or working-class families, although that has changed a bit since tuition at state schools has become so formidable. I admire them, remembering myself at their stage in education, but I am also troubled by the outrageous demands that are placed upon them. Most of my students struggle with all of the time demands that you describe so well, plus more than half are also parents. Ironically, this means that they have the interest but not the time to take something so esoteric as “Working Class Literature.” (If you see her, give my regards to my old friend, Pamela Fox.) Rachel Stevens


  10. Dr. Ray Beiersdorfer says:

    Two of the most useful things I’ve done in teaching at YSU is to recognize all the extra responsibilities my students have and to provide “alternative” credit opportunities to relieve a little stress from some of the trauma that pops up.


  11. Marissa says:

    Students ho come from working class backgrounds are often forced to face a plethora of challenges, insecurities, and suspicions which more privileged students do not have to deal with, making education seem like a battle in which the enemies are great and the student is insecure, stressed, and often lacking in the resources necessary. This is not the means of lifting up the working class students and empowering them, it is simply dejecting them as preparation for a life of dejection in the working class out of which they will most likely never egress. . .


  12. I enjoyed this personal observation of how class impacts student behavior and expectations. When I think about it (and I try not to), I am still pretty traumatized by my educational experiences, in which every transition in which I (from a humble background, complicated considerably by parents being immigrants) was constantly conscious of class and of “belonging” less and less the further I got academically, topping out when I entered college (an elite Ivy League institution I didn’t even consider applying to a year before I did) and never once fit in and felt I slipped through the cracks. It is sobering to think I might have made better use of college had I gone to the local home town state university.


  13. Michelle says:

    Thanks for the insightful, useful commentary, Sherry.


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