‘Straddling’ College and Working Class
Working-class students make up a small percentage of overall attendees of top-notch schools, but they often feel isolated and marginalized.
In this Nov. 19, 2009 photo, Fernando Luna, a senior at Houston's YES Prep North Central high school, studies during his lunch break. More than 90 percent of YES Prep students are first-generation college-bound; 80 percent come from low-income families and 96 percent are Hispanic or African-American. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Chynna Haas was sitting in a group discussion in class once when she heard a classmate say, “Poor people didn’t belong in college because they wouldn’t know how to use the library or the bus system and they wouldn’t know how to survive here.”
Haas, a first-generation college student who comes from a working-class family, says it is because of this attitude that she has never quite adjusted to the often elite environment of higher education. “[I’m not] able to engage in the culture of college the same way that other students get to,” she says.
Of students entering top universities, only 3 percent come from the bottom income bracket and only 6 percent come from the lower-middle income group. Instead, these schools populations are made up of 17 percent upper-middle income students and 74 percent of top income bracket, according to the Economic Policy Institute's most recent report on America’s standard of living, "The State of Working America."
It becomes a worse picture for working-class students when you look at graduation rates. Only 68 percent of low-income students graduate in six years, low compared to an 83 percent graduation rate among high-income students, according to a 2009 book that examined graduation data in state colleges and universities, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities.
Philadelphia Inquirer journalist and son of a Brooklyn bricklayer Alfred Lubrano knows the feeling Haas is experiencing. Lubrano admits he often feels uncomfortable in his middle-class life. His 2004 book, Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams, focuses on the consequences of class mobility. He classifies people like him as “straddlers,” people who exist in both the working-class world and the middle-class world. They often end up feeling like they belong in neither.
But many working-class students, or "straddlers," as Lubrano calls them, don’t like to talk about their social class, says Jane Van Galen, professor of education at The University of Washington–Bothell, who was a first generation college student and now maintains a blog about the intersection of class and education called Education and Class. “There’s a sense that you’re trying not to be found out,” she says.
Haas says she had a similar experience. What made it harder for her was the stark difference in cultures between her hometown of Beloit, Wisc., and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Beloit has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country—17.7 percent, compared to the national average of just less than 10 percent. Her father was laid off 15 months ago from his maintenance job and her mother delivers newspapers.
Haas feels like she’s been treated differently because of her family's financial situation. As a senior in high school, a guidance counselor discouraged Haas from applying to UW–Madison because, he said, she didn’t have the grades or the money to go. This attitude was only emphasized in college.
“A lot of the culture here is [about] consumption,” Haas says. “So if you don’t participate in those things because you don’t have the money to do that, that’s also looked down upon.”
One of the greatest pressures for working-class students in higher education is the sense of not belonging, says Sherry Linkon, a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio and co-director of university’s Center for Working Class Studies, which examines working class culture and issues facing working class students in higher education.
“Students [sometimes] didn’t even think of themselves as working class, [but] when they get to college, they realize how much less money they have than other people, how much less they’ve traveled—all kinds of ways that they are different," Linkon says. "Much of that can create a sense of being an outsider.”
In many working class families, college-educated people aren’t seen as real workers, Linkon says. For college students from working class backgrounds, “there can be a sense that you’re betraying your family.”
Haas also points to the values of working class families as a way that perception of education can change family dynamics. “When I started [college], I fought really hard to maintain my working-class roots and my working class culture, but to be here and to survive here, I have to talk differently,” Haas says. “So I talk differently at school than I talk when I go home. I use different words.” At home, speaking like a college student might be perceived negatively.
Haas says this makes her feel uncomfortable when she's back in her hometown. “It’s kind of this double-edged sword,” says Haas about her education. “It’s really difficult trying to navigate what is your relationship with your family then now that, even against your will, you’re changing and developing into being a different person.” In Lubrano’s words, Haas is becoming a straddler.
In her life at UW-Madison, Haas has witnessed careless remarks from teachers or other students. “I had a financial aid officer tell me that if I were to get pregnant, that he’d be able to get me more money for my financial aid package … I had one professor who gave a lecture about how poor people are the downfall of democracy,” she says, “and how they lack all sense of agency and they’ll never achieve anything in their lives.”
Haas believes low-income students in higher education are treated much differently than wealthier students. “I had peers [who would say], ‘Oh, I’m not on the financial aid.' [They were] talking about it like it was welfare. There’s a stigma that goes on with even receiving financial aid.”
To afford school, Haas started working at age 15. The summer before college, she held two jobs, working about 70 hours a week. Through her education, she’s relied on two to three jobs at a time in addition to her financial aid. She currently takes a full load of classes, 15 credits, and works about 40 hours a week.
It’s common that students with lower household incomes like Haas, according to a 2006 report by the American Council on Education, work more during their time in school than wealthier students. Independent students, or students who can't rely on their parents’ income, are more likely to work over 35 hours a week than students who qualify as dependents of their parents.
Haas’ work schedule has attracted attention from her peers, and it was just one of the many differences she noticed. “I had a difficult time relating to peers on campus. Being a working-class student here, I was definitely in the minority.” After her third semester, she was ready to drop out.
But Haas soon found out she wasn’t alone. During her fall semester in 2007, Haas founded an organization for working-class students on campus. “I wanted to see if there were more students who were similar [to me] and were going through similar things,” Haas says. The organization helped her and other straddlers discuss class in a safe environment.
Although she’s grateful that she’s attending one of the best universities in Wisconsin, Haas feels that it came with additional, and sometimes unnecessary, pressures. She has recently decided not to attend graduate school when she graduates this spring and is currently searching for jobs in both Beloit and Madison.
This class struggle that many students face is an individual thing—some people can incorporate the two worlds, choosing the best from each, but Lubrano—and maybe Haas in the future—might not be able to. “I am still very much a straddler,” Lubrano says.
Julissa Treviño is a staff writer for Campus Progress. She graduated from Ithaca College in 2009.
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