How Colleges Are Keeping Class Distinctions Alive

Education — earning a college degree — has long been assumed to be the “great equalizer” that can pull people up the income ladder into the middle class and beyond. But in recent years, what has been held as a gospel truth is being questioned by statistics: According to figures cited in the New York Times, there is now a 45 percentage point difference between upper- and lower-income students who earn bachelor’s degrees. But thirty years ago that gap was only 30 percentage points.

Why Lower-Income Students Often Struggle in College

The†New York Times cites a number of reasons that I’ve noted in years of teaching students at a†small Catholic university in Jersey City: the deepening gulf between the haves and the have-nots; societal changes that have left more lower-income students in single-parent homes; growing segregation in neighborhoods so poor students attend public schools of lower quality; the ever-higher cost to attend college (average tuition for a public university rose 60 percent in the past two decades).

More than a few of my school’s students have attended poor, urban high schools which sometimes shut their doors in the winter when the heating system breaks and †the school district has no money for repairs.†More than a few have been raised by their grandparents and have relatives (their fathers) who are incarcerated. Many struggle to graduate in four years, if at all, because

  • They fail courses (sometimes because they don’t show up much for class) and have to retake them; they switch majors and don’t realize that doing so means more years in school and more expenses.
  • They are confused about financial aid, intimidated by financial aid staff and fear things will get worse if they ask for help.
  • They miss classes because of family obligations, often caring for younger and older relatives.
  • If they have health issues or injuries or disabilities, they do not ask for accommodations; they often simply do not realize they could ask.

This fall, two students in one of my classes ended the semester not as they had begun it — studying together for Latin quizzes — but as parents of a baby. After sending some frantic emails in October after realizing she was pregnant, the female student withdrew from the class. Her boyfriend struggled even to come to class and barely made it to the final exam.

Too often, I hear about former students working in retail jobs at Walmart, at the mall — jobs they did not need to attend college to have.

What Can We Do So Education Remains the “Great Equalizer”?

For all of these reasons, we need to rethink higher education for students who are the first in their families to attend college, especially at a time when college costs have risen so dramatically. We need to do a better job helping those who do not have the “advocacy edge” that the children of affluent parents do, as†sociologist Annette Lareau describes the difference between middle-class and working-class students. As she noted in the†New York Times, the†former assume that†”the institution will respond to them” while the latter†”donít experience that” and are therefore “vulnerable.”

I wish I had the answers to help all of my students graduate in four years and with majors that prepared them for fulfilling careers and/or graduate school. Educators have been studying the issue and, while they have not come up with ready solutions, they have pinpointed some issues:

I am not in an administrative position at my school but I try, as much as I might as a faculty member, to help students, often keeping in mind what I’ve learned from advocating for my teenage autistic son, Charlie, who has little speech. While most of my students do not have disabilities they do, like Charlie, have a lot of trouble knowing how and when to ask for help. I try to let students know they can ask for assistance.

Perhaps the first step colleges and universities need to take to better support lower-income students is to realize just this and let lower-income students know†that there is nothing shameful in asking for help. Schools certainly want students to succeed and are there to support them — but they need to do a far better job communicating this message.


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Sylvia B.
Sylvia B6 years ago

"There is a tendency for lower-income students to “undermatch,” to choose a school that is local and not as academically challenging as a more selective one that is further away. As a result, students remain tied to family and personal obligations and do not have the benefit of a more competitive campus culture that might help them make the most of their abilities."

Another aspect of this being tied to family and personal obligations is that the students do not get a chance to get away from the dysfunctional patterns that keeps the rest of the family stuck. I went to school at the local community college, and it was more like still being in high school, because my mother kept interfering with my studies to direct attention to her latest "crisis". I was able to transfer to a four-year school that, while more expensive, was also farther away, so that I could focus on my academics in peace without the family drama being front and center. Also, it was less likely that family was going to pop in for a visit that often too. When I had to appeal a decision from the financial aid office to deny me aid for my final two semesters because I was short a couple credits, I wrote an appeal letter explaining the family situation that I had to deal with. As hard as it was to state what was going on, swallowing the pride and admitting there was a problem got me what I needed, to restore my financial aid and graduate, as opposed to saying, "Oh no, everything is fine" and end u

Brian McDermott
Eva Daniher6 years ago


Jim N.
James N6 years ago

These all sound like problems encountered by someone who was handed free tuition and didn't have to work for it. I worked for 10 years in a chair factory to pay for my education. I paid for every dime of it on my own other than a couple small Pell grants. And you can believe, I showed up for class. I worked summers in Central Texas in a metal building with no insulation and no air conditioning. You best believe I put in the effort to graduate and get out of that situation.

When you hand someone everything, of course the problems this article mentions will arise.

Ro H.
Ro H6 years ago


Patricia H.
Patricia H.6 years ago


Christopher M.
Christopher M.6 years ago

Grace, you know when you're trying to bring those taxes down, the life of one woman, or 20,000, is a small price to pay. That is why my parents and I are democrat.

Tammy Taylor
Tammy Taylor6 years ago


Christopher M.
Christopher M.6 years ago

It isn't really that cut and dried. The school will probably reject you in favor of better applicants no matter how rich you are. Unless someone makes some hefty donations....

Laurie Greenberg
Laurie Greenberg6 years ago


paul m.
paul m6 years ago

How much do you have ? With money you can go to any School , without you can end up in a "Failing School"