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Colliding into Class Issues on Campus

Jourdan Shepard, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, created a lively blogosphere debate with his online post decrying the expectation that students will aspire to elitism and classism at the historically Black all male college. “Every August, a new freshman class walks through the gates of the school and into the campus gymnasium only to have their older brothers try to transform them into Black elites,” Shepard wrote late last year as the Morehouse correspondent for, an online aggregator of news targeted at Black Americans. “Yes, Morehouse does tell their freshmen what is expected, but the bravado has seemed to overshadow the greater good. This is a problem.”

What drew Shepard’s ire is the sense of elitism and entitlement among a certain group of students on strutting across his campus green. According to a growing body of scholarly literature, class stratification on college campuses may well be an immutable barrier that increasingly divides affluent students from their less well-off classmates, threatening the long-cherished ideal that a college education serves as the great equalizer of society.

The Big Three

Even as college campuses herald their efforts to lower racial barriers, especially at the most elite, predominately White colleges, some observers note that economic disparities among college students is creating a situation where affluent students have one experience and poor students have an entirely different one. Several academics have looked at what Shepard called “a problem,” and their findings are far from definitive. Their scholarship suggests, however, that class distinction is nothing new on college campuses, but nevertheless deserves greater attention if institutions desire to improve the educational experience for poorer students.

Indeed, Thomas J. Espenshade, a sociology professor at Princeton University, said scholars on college campuses have long been aware of and concerned about what he labeled the big-three axis of inequality on campuses — racial, gender and class distinctions — that affect student performance and outcomes.

“There’s nothing new to those of us on the faculty of sociology departments about how class differences impact our students,” he said in a recent interview. “We’ve been studying this for years, and it’s a part of the sociologist DNA to be concerned about these issues, even when the larger society hasn’t paid as much attention to it as we consistently have.”

A Growing Divide

To be sure, hardly anyone seriously quarrels with the abundant facts demonstrating that students from poor and economically disadvantaged homes perform, on average, worse in school than classmates from affluent communities. Notably, the highly regarded 1966 “Equality of Educational Opportunity” study — best known as the Coleman Study — made clear that student background and socioeconomic status are more important in determining educational outcomes than are measurable differences in school funding. More recently, research by Sean F. Reardon at Stanford University traces the student achievement gap between wealthy and poor children over the last half century, finding that the gap is greater than that between Black and White school children. Of course, if those gaps aren’t narrowing, then it’s reasonable to assume that economic disparities (and the gulf of academic outcomes) are evident on the college campus. Indeed, this is the case — with troubling outcomes.

Espenshade has studied the effects that economic disparities have on the college experiences of more than 9,000 students who applied, enrolled and graduated from 10 selective colleges between the early 1980s and late 1990s. His findings, co-authored with Alexandria Walton Radford and published in the aptly titled book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life (Princeton University Press, 2009), suggested that students from different racial and class backgrounds “do not mix as much as one might expect.”

The lack of social interactions aren’t the “problem,” but a symptom and reflection of the divergent experiences student are likely to have on campus. As Espenshade explained in an interview, less affluent students often walk on campus feeling out of place, harboring attitudes that hamper their early ease and adjustment to college life. Such feelings aren’t shared by their wealthier classmates, he said.

What’s more, often the poorer student is made to feel unwelcome or reminded of his or her “outsider status” with comments about the student’s need to work or dependence on financial aid. “Financial aid is where the class distinctions become apparent,” he said. “The top schools are trying to make financial aid available and to make it more practical for [less wealthy] students to attend. But that aid has to be invisible to insure that it’s not the dividing line once the student arrives for class.”

Class Trumps Race

In recent decades and as the backlash to affirmative action programs displaced race-based efforts to attract nontraditional students to campus, college administrators and admissions officers have shifted focus toward redefining what a diverse student body looks like. Increasingly, class-based diversity is the more coveted form of campus diversity and race-based admissions is passé.

“I think [admissions officers] are motivated by the same concerns regarding social class diversity as they were with racial diversity,” Espenshade told me. “They see themselves as creating opportunity for groups outside the mainstream.”

Indeed, one of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of the brief era of affirmative action programs was that an ever-expanding group of well-prepared and, often academically gifted, middle-class of Black students were admitted to elite college campuses. Once on campus, these students found themselves to be viewed as separate and unequal to their even better prepared and decidedly more affluent White classmates.

Espenshade said that race, class and gender distinctions have long been a part of the DNA on college campuses. The Civil Rights Movement pushed some schools to make aggressive efforts to bring Black students on the yard, but it didn’t change the way they chose to interact among themselves, nor how they were treated by others once they arrived. The same seems to be true with class-based differences, he said.

Yet, considering a student’s class doesn’t touch the same chords that considering race once did. “I think there’s awareness [among college admissions officers] that these are two different things,” Espenshade said. “One is not just a proxy or coded-language for the other.”

For the most part, few people — on campus or across the wider land — want to acknowledge that class matters or is determinative to future success.

Denial that class truly existed separated the founding fathers’ lofty ideals from every man (and every woman) in the society. For the New World’s experiment in representative democracy to take root, let alone succeed, every citizen had to believe that his or her opportunity in life was equal to a neighbor’s, not granted by a monarch or ordained by clergy.

That’s where education entered the picture, enshrined as the great leveler of our society. In order to be self-governing, a population had to be educated well enough to keep tabs on its government, to track how it spent taxes and to hold accountable any who would corrupt the system. Knowledge was the key; greater quantities of education opened more rooms to those who might have been locked out. That is the theory. In practice, something else is true. The class divide continues to yawn across America, and, despite legal attack and changed social norms, education inequality continues to assist in the maintenance of a class-based status quo.

In a voluminous examination of class in America in 2005, The New York Times noted that many Americans prefer to imagine that class distinctions in the land “have blurred” or “some say they have disappeared.” However, The Times’ findings pointed to the contrary:

“Class is still a powerful force in American life. Over the past three decades, it has come to play a greater, not lesser, role in important ways. At a time when education matters more than ever, success in school remains linked tightly to class. At a time when the country is increasingly integrated racially, the rich are isolating themselves more and more.”

This seems especially true on the nation’s college campuses, which are the petri dishes of America. Whatever conversations occur in the wider, public conversation are surely more concentrated and intense among the young, sensitive and idealistic students.

If there’s any question about this, ask Shepard: “No student … should have the unfounded belief that they are a different breed,” he wrote, railing against classism he sees on his campus. “The purpose of college is to develop the individual and help the community, rather than embracing a superficial identity that degrades one another.”

Sam Fulwood III, a former newspaper journalist, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Leadership Institute and Progress 2050 projects examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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