Friday, July 18, 2014

How social class affects your odds of graduating

A lack of support in an unfamiliar place means working-class students are less likely to integrate into university culture.

The start of classes is just a month away. The new school year will bring thousands of new students to college campuses around the United States. Many of these students come from middle-class backgrounds. Most of their parents attended college and graduated with a four-year degree. But a growing number of incoming freshmen are working-class, first generation college students who are often unprepared for the challenges of being a university student. Often they find that their working-class upbringing clashes with the dominant middle-class culture of the university, making it harder to succeed.

Some would blame the students and say that they did not have the intelligence or discipline to perform well in the university setting. But these students aren’t dumb. Research by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl has shown that when controlling for SAT scores, working-class students are much less likely to graduate with a four-year degree in comparison to their middle and upper-class counterparts. Even the highest scoring students from the top income quartile are twice as likely to graduate from college as students from the bottom income quartile.
(Zero Creatives/Getty Images)

These are good students, so college, in theory, should be easy. But it seems that early on in their college careers, they hit a bump. Some working-class students will have trouble making friends or fail a test. Instead of recovering, these challenges often derail otherwise good students. 

However, students from middle and upper-class backgrounds have a huge advantage because, unlike working-class students, their upbringing generally prepares them to be part of the university, an organization that emphasizes academics, new ideas, and diverse cultures.

Although some working-class students adapt to the middle-class identity of a university student, many struggle to assimilate. Sometimes they have little in common with middle-class students around them and as a result, feel like they don’t belong. Sadly, most working class student don’t graduate, as the data from Carnevale and Strohl show, and a number of universities around the nation have started asking what they can do to help these students. 

In many universities, when students start underperforming in core math and science classes like chemistry or algebra, they are moved to lower level classes. However, this course of action relays one message to the student: You don’t belong here. Once students start thinking this way, they usually leave college shortly thereafter.

To combat high dropout rates among working-class students, David Laude, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin created the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan, and invited incoming working-class freshmen. The program offered smaller class sizes, in addition to greater interaction with course instructors, study groups, and peer tutoring. However, the students in the University of Texas plan were expected to learn the same material at the same pace as the rest of the student body. When the first test came back these students obtained the same test scores as the larger lecture-hall classes. In the end, students in the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan graduated at a rate higher than the university average. 

The key factor in helping these students was not making things easier for them or giving them more time. It’s not that working-class the students weren’t smart, it’s that they generally felt lost in a radically new setting. Creating a smaller group with peer support created the right environment to help them find their way in the university. Belonging and social support are just as if not more critical to success in higher education. If universities want to raise graduation rates and academic performance in general, helping working-class students adjust their new environment is extremely important.

Nick Harder is a contributing writer for Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, studying Political Science and Sociology. He is also a research assistant in the Center for the Study of Group Processes.

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