Are America’s Colleges Failing Working-Class Kids?

Carrie Sloan

college middle classIt’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.

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 

  • Antonia Cafaro

    students with a limited financial means should not be ashamed and feel left out due to lack of affluence…for those of you out there that feel this way put on “blinders” and look only ahead to your future and not what is going on around you in the present…don’t let envy and bitterness enter your mind because these feelings will only stifle you and deter you from reaching your goals. Life is hard and will continue to get harder so if you can deal and work around the unfairness of life when you are young you will be more adaptable in the future when setbacks come your way. You will grow to be self sufficient adults who thrive in adversity..this is a skill that is INVALUABLE not only on the job but in life. This is something that your affluent counterparts have trouble developing since they have always have a safety net. In the end, when you succeed you will have a secret pride knowing that you did it on your own and you will feel empowered! Not to mention you will probably spend money wiser and have better values than your affluent schoolmates. Don’t hate on your affluent schoolmates however..if anything maintain friendships with them. Many are good people who just happen to have money, and may actually help you if they have connections in the job world. Never break ties and never hold something against a person that’s beyond their control. Its not their fault the were born with money just as its not your fault you were born without….that’s just the way of the world.

    It saddens me to read something like this so please don’t become a statistic..keep going, keep working, and remember that jealousy is a waste of energy take that energy and put it towards your future!! You will be a better and stronger person for it.

    • Young Millenial

      I totally agree with this. Don’t get caught up in drama and if you do either change dorms or move to an off campus apartment. I had noisy roommates in my first semester and I moved out of that place and ended up liking my next roommates. Now, if the college isn’t accommodating to the student’s needs, than that is a different story, but things like this can be solved just by talking to the people involved and if they don’t listen keep moving up the chain in command to the RA and what not. Ultimately, it is the student’s decision as far as how responsible and how much they want to complete the degree they signed up for or if they want to ignore that responsibility and party too much. Networking is also key. If you end up knowing someone that has a family that could give you an internship, it might work out as well, don’t be close-minded if you see a bunch of well to do kids, if they aren’t a fit for you socially than keep looking for other friends, there will be others in your same situation that have come from working class families. So, not all is lost. There is no reason to be involved with a frat or sorority if you don’t want to be involved. I never joined one or felt the need to. School is more important than everything else and learning how to balance school work with socializing is something else that student’s have to learn while they are in college.

      • Alexis Greenwood

        Agreed. Your reply warms my heart Antonia.

  • Mint and Honey

    Interesting-surprised that someone finally studied/wrote about this issue. I can say that I have experienced some of the hardships as a college student coming from a single, working class family. It was tough. Still today, I am one of the few who have a B. A. degree in my family. It hasn’t paid off though…I still only get low-paying jobs that only require a high school diploma yet I have a nice student loan amount to pay back.

  • lskn

    I was the first in my family to get a college degree and I attended a top-20 university. There were trust-fund babies with piles of money but plenty of middle-class and working-class students also. I didn’t have a hard time finding like-minded friends who also were balancing a part-time job with classes and student loans. Everyone studied hard because that’s the general tone of students at a top-tier academic school. I think the authors’ findings apply mostly to mid-range schools where academics aren’t the priority. Send kids to the best college they can get into and they’ll find other hard workers to associate with and not feel left out.