Working-class studies scholars often complain about how some researchers use a single aspect of people’s lives – most often education — to determine their social class. Anytime we define class in one way, we oversimplify it and miss important insights about how class works. That both class and the working class have often been ignored, dismissed, downplayed, or misunderstood is part of what makes them such fascinating and important subjects. Unfortunately, the slipperiness and complexity of class also explains why it often gets sidelined. As the coordinator of a research center on race and gender once told me, explaining why she didn’t highlight class in her project, “Class is just too difficult.”
I’ve been especially troubled by an increasingly widespread version of that: the adoption of “first-generation” as the dominant way of identifying student services programs aimed at what I would call working-class students. As I have argued in various settings, institutions need to do more than recruit these students or try to make college affordable (something that Sara Goldrick-Rab argues they have not done very well). We also need to help students get the most out of higher education. I’m excited to see more and more schools establishing resource centers, mentoring projects, student groups, and other efforts to help working-class students, many of them students of color, thrive academically and socially. Yet I am troubled that so many of these projects describe their work as serving “first-generation” students.
No doubt, “first-generation” has some advantages over “working-class” as a label. While it zooms in on one element of a student’s experience, whether their parents went to college is a good predictor of several other factors – class, income, race, immigration status. It also points to two of the challenges these students face: feeling out of place and not knowing how to navigate the institution. Students whose parents went to college, and especially the significant number at elite institutions whose parents went to the same college they now attend, often feel a sense of ownership and belonging. They see themselves as having a right to be there, while first-gen students may feel like interlopers. They may also feel displaced from home as they begin to construct their student lives in the privileged world of the university. Similarly, students whose parents went to college have in-house experts who can provide advice on where to get help and encourage a student to feel entitled to ask for help. All of this reflects experiences rooted in whether one or both parents went to college. “First-gen” also highlights the significance of cultural capital, which might include familial attitudes about reading and knowledge, travel experiences, exposure to Culture with a capital C, and so one. In this sense, “first-gen” is an accurate and useful term.
“First-gen” may also be more inclusive and inviting than “working-class.” Despite evidence that more Americans than we might think identify themselves as working-class (see the General Social Survey question on class identification, or recent studies suggesting that younger adults are becoming more likely to define themselves as working-class), the term also carries negative connotations. In Working-Class Studies courses at Youngstown State University, my mostly working-class students often shied away from using the term – not only to refer to themselves but even to refer to the writers or subjects of the books we read. Nearly every semester, students explained that they saw “working-class” as an insult. To call someone “working-class” drew attention to their failure to succeed in our supposedly equal-opportunity society. My students always got past that, but those class discussions taught me why announcing a project as aimed at working-class students often doesn’t work. Students not only don’t necessarily define themselves as working-class, they may actively resist that language. And that may be especially true for students of color, who given political discourse these days, may reasonably hear “working class” as code for “white working class.” Similarly, students from rural areas or whose families work in service jobs may assume that “working class” refers primarily to industrial workers (or to those who used to do such labor), not to people like them.
“First-gen” on the other hand, is both clearer – it refers to a single, explicit fact – and relatively neutral. While some raise questions about whether a student counts as “first-gen” if their parents have some college or if only one of them went to college, for most, it’s a straightforward definition, and because it’s a fairly new term in higher education and public discourse, it carries almost no baggage. Indeed, for many students, being the first in their family to go to college is a source of pride, while coming from a working-class family can, unfortunately, be a source of shame.
Still, “first-gen” hides some important issues about how class influences students’ experiences. In a way, “first-gen” efforts may go too far in the direction that I and others have advocated, putting the focus on culture and self-efficacy, all in the name of helping working-class students succeed. But that can also mask the sometimes dramatic economic problems that Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues have identified. I’m sure many of these programs acknowledge the economic inequities, and some also address them directly, by actively helping students access basic needs like food, housing, winter coats, and so on. Still, I was struck by the words of Emily Loftis, writing about the “anger of a first-generation student” on the Class Action blog a few years ago:
No one told me about the anger I’d feel when 90% of my class raises their hand when the professor asks who has visited country x, y, and z when I’ve never left the country. Or how frustrating it feels to have to check my bank account before every purchase while my classmates receive money week after week from parents’ seemingly bottomless bank accounts. The anger that springs up when I’m searching for a summer internship because they’re all unpaid and I don’t have enough experience for the paid ones because I spend my summers working. The anger from spending my holiday breaks cleaning houses while my classmates take trips around the world.
Clearly, Loftis’s anger is primarily about money, not her parents’ education, and that needs to be part of the campus, political, and public discussions of the challenges working-class students face. Indeed, it may well be money more than culture that accounts for the decline in college attendance among first-generation students.
More important, “first-gen” erases the systemic and collective elements of class. To identify as “first-gen” is to define oneself based on the specific conditions of one’s own family, not of a large and varied class that shares many experiences and whose opportunities are systematically – not incidentally or situationally – constrained. This not only individualizes students’ experiences, functioning perhaps inadvertently to push students into middle-class culture. It also emphasizes the pressure students feel to be the one to lift their families out of their economic marginalization. The answer to a family’s struggles, this suggests, is education, which in turn enables individual success. To be fair, first-gen projects often work hard to foster a sense of community and shared experience among students, but that solidarity is not necessarily tied to broader social conditions or conflicts. The neutrality of “first-gen” draws students in, but I also want these programs to encourage them to understand and take action on the injustices that shaped those conditions.
So I’m torn about “first-gen.” Because I want students to take advantage of the support that universities can provide, and because I want those programs to engage working-class students from a wide range of backgrounds, I recognize the value of organizing these efforts as services for “first-gen” students. At the same time, I don’t want us to lose yet another opportunity to talk about class or to recognize how the commonalities (and differences) of working-class life influences not only students’ experiences in college but the lives of the families and their own life paths after graduation. As bell hooks wrote in reflecting on her own experience as a first-generation college student at Stanford, class matters. When we erase that, we undermine the possibility for organizing against the economic and political constraints faced by the working-class families first-gen students are leaving behind.