Are America's Colleges Failing Working-Class Kids?

Are America's Colleges Failing Working-Class Kids?

It's a depressing idea: College—that integral part of the American Dream, and a key ingredient in social mobility in the U.S.—could actually prove to be not as helpful for working-class kids as it is for their more affluent counterparts.

And the two sociologists proposing this controversial theory didn't arrive at their conclusions lightly, either. In "Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality," Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton describe the year they spent living on the dorm floor of a large Midwestern university, the more than 200 student interviews they performed over the course of five years ... and the 2,000 pages of field notes that followed.

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In other words, they immersed themselves in the scene to see what was really happening on campus—or at least inside one particular dormitory hall, from which, they say, it's easy to extrapolate.

LearnVest spoke to Hamilton, as well as undergrads who describe themselves as working class, to find out why this could still be happening in America in 2013, and what you need to know to choose the right school.

Why Class Matters at College

While most freshman, regardless of provenance, move into similarly utilitarian dorm rooms, those interchangeable cinderblock walls often do little to level the playing field in the long run, say Armstrong and Hamilton.

What they found is that if two students of equal ability, with parallel aims, arrive at the same school—yet one is from a less-advantaged background—the forces at work on college campuses today mean that she may not complete her degree, may feel socially ostracized and may have a harder time finding a job after graduation.

RELATED: Why Paying for College Could Hurt Our Kids 

paying for the party

"One of the findings in the book was that translating a college degree with an associated major and GPA depends so much on parental capital and social resources," explains Hamilton. "Take two students with a 3.9 GPA and the same major. The student from the more affluent family will have two unpaid internships on her resume when she graduates—maybe one that her parents helped her get."

And, as Hamilton and Armstrong continued to follow the women after they graduated, they found the same held true once the women were job hunting.

According to the researchers, this parental advantage, combined with the allure of a college party scene that may take a student's focus away from academics, can hurt working class students more than affluent ones, who can more readily fall back on parental ties and safety nets.

Since When Did Colleges Become Country Clubs?

It's hardly a secret that college costs have skyrocketed. But what may be lesser-known is one reason why: "On the campus we studied, there was massive building of recreational centers and luxury apartments," says Hamilton. "These projects are more about student life—the academic quality of things isn't getting better. Someone called it the country-clubization of higher education."

They may have a point.

Richard K. Vedder, a professor at Ohio University who studies the economics of higher education, was quoted in the New York Times after a new report on college spending showed that public research universities, such as the one Hamilton studied, increased their spending on student services by 20% between 1998 and 2008. Yet spending on instruction increased by just 10%.

"A lot of it is for great athletic centers and spectacular student union buildings," Vedder told the Times. "In the zeal to get students, they are going after them on the basis of recreational amenities."

Hamilton agrees. "As the states have pulled funding from large, mid-tier schools, they’ve raised tuition and heavily recruited out-of-state and international students," she explains. "They can only get the less studious of the rich, so their effort is on creating a great party place." But, that environment, she adds, "is problematic for less-privileged kids: They can get sucked into a huge party scene they can't afford."

A Tale of Sorority Disparity

In "Paying for the Party," Hamilton and Armstrong describe a deep divide between Greeks and non-Greeks on the campus they studied: A Pan-Hellenic system that catered to wealthy, white women, while the less-affluent were literally left out in the cold, becoming what Hamilton termed social "isolates."

"Initially, we assumed that floor isolates would find each other and create their own friendship groups," writes Hamilton of women who were excluded quite noticeably from the goings-on on their dorm floor. Take Michelle, a working-class student paying her own way through college and a floor isolate who was "surrounded by affluent partiers—Naomi and Abby on one side, and Melanie on the other," describes Hamilton in "Paying for the Party."

Despite repeated requests to quiet down, the revelers next door were "really loud," Michelle told the researchers. "[My roommate] Valerie and I could not sleep. There were nights when we were up until 5 a.m. just waiting for them to shut up." It was like, she said, "Do you guys go to class? Do you not have classes? I can't understand why people would come to college and fail. I guess if you're not paying for it yourself, you can just take it for granted."

Not having a safety net can mean a student has more drive when she arrives at college—not to mention a fire in her belly to get there in the first place.

Many would argue that college isn't the middle school cafeteria—it's about getting a degree. But the social impact of that first year was so severe for some isolates that not only did the dynamics often impede their academic efforts, some left the university altogether as a result.

How Being Less Affluent Can Actually Help You

At the same time, not having a safety net can also mean a student has far more drive when she arrives at college—not to mention a fire in her belly to get there in the first place.

Yelena Bosovik's family immigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine in the hopes that their ten children would have the opportunity to get a college education.

In May, Yelena, the eldest, graduated from Drury University in Springfield, Mo., with a double major in economics and finance. In the fall, she'll attend the University of Missouri School of Law, but her path to higher education has been anything but well-paved. "I applied for 100 college scholarships," says the 22-year-old. "I had a three-ring, color-coded binder, and I harassed all of my teachers and guidance counselors."

RELATED: I Paid Off $90,000 of Debt in Three Years

The difference for Bosovik, who worked two jobs while in college, was that she knew she was the one footing the bill. "My dad lost his job, so he was unemployed for two and a half years right when I was applying for school," she says. "I didn't just have to pay my way through college—I needed money to send back home."

It helped that Drury University had a large commuter population, so Bosovik could live at home while completing her degree. In fact, the selection of school is key if you want to capitalize on your investment, says Hamilton.

How to Choose the Best School for You

"You might assume that lower-middle-class families would have a hard time paying for college," Hamilton says, "but these parents would be pulling out loans, and pooling money from everyone in the family because they thought this was the best thing they could do for their kid. It was devastating for them when it didn’t turn out the way they thought it would."

RELATED: Why Paying for My Daughter's College Is My Ultimate Life Goal

Her advice if you have limited means? Look for a school where there are others like you or seek out a living situation that caters to your interests—even if it means switching dorms. The problem with the freshmen she studied, says Hamilton, "is that they didn't realize that there were other people like them."

And don't be afraid to aim for a school that's a financial reach. "You can actually be better off attending an institution that’s far more prestigious, like Brown or Harvard," she says. "They do a really good job of helping less-privileged kids have the same resources as everyone else."

Rebecca Amoah, 24, whose parents are from Ghana, graduated from Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. in 2011 with a degree in neuroscience. Working through college on a campus where many students didn't work "was really difficult," Amoah says, adding that she "noticed the difference in organizations and clubs. Many of my friends took ownership and leadership roles that I didn't have time to do. Learning those skills would have been helpful."

Still, she chose Wellesley because the college offered a lot of opportunity—especially in terms of funding for service travel, such as studying abroad or working for organizations like AmeriCorps, which was an interest of hers. She was able to fulfill her dream of studying abroad, spending a semester at King's College in London.

"If you're on financial aid, Wellesley makes it possible for you to study abroad," she says. "I don't think I'd have been able to do that if I'd gone to Rutgers."

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