A few years ago, hundreds of college administrators received a survey in the mail. It was designed to figure out what they believed it takes to succeed in college.
The survey listed 12 skills that colleges generally expect students to develop, but the administrators were asked to pick the five most important.
You can do the same exercise below:
This bias might not seem like a big deal: After all, many people would say college is where you learn about yourself — where you figure out how to do things on your own, how to think for yourself.
But as it turns out, this seemingly insignificant bias is partially responsible for turning colleges into institutions that reproduce wealth and exacerbate structural inequality. Research suggests that these values are actually dependent on a student's class background — and that when students from lower- and working-class families get to college, they face an experience largely shaped by more privileged people.
"Even if students have sufficient economic resources and academic skills," one of the researchers, Nicole Stephens, said, "that's not sufficient in and of itself."
A finishing school for the affluent
Education is generally thought to be the surest path to economic mobility. But any notion that education is a neutral purveyor of opportunity can be dispelled with a single chart:
The data, from the Brookings Institution's Richard Reeves, shows that your educational attainment is largely dependent on how much education your parents had. For all of the proclamations of America as a land of opportunity, it's exceedingly hard to move up the ladder.
And things aren't getting better. While more Americans are going to college as a whole, the gap between the affluent and poor has widened — and the value of a college degree is declining.
It starts in high school, where poor kids are less likely to earn a high school diploma than their richer peers. And after high school, research from Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski shows that there's a widening gap between the poor and affluent when it comes to enrolling in a four-year college:
But here's where things get really worrisome for college.
Even when lower- and working-class students graduate from high school and go to college, something quite sobering happens if you follow them for a few years.
It turns out they struggle to graduate compared to their wealthier peers.
And the gap has only widened.
Part of this gap can be attributed to students from poor families being more likely to go to colleges with lower graduation rates and lower admissions standards. These schools tend to have fewer resources compared to more selective schools and flagship state universities.
But there’s also something about the American college environment that betrays students from lower- and working-class backgrounds.
Some of it is financial, but there's something else going on — something that is perpetuated by the beliefs and values of upper-middle class people. This ranges from big-picture things, like what we think the purpose of college is, to more mundane things, like our eating or vacationing habits. And when mixed with this country's imprecise way of talking about class, it creates a toxic environment that stunts the performances of students who are trying to climb the social class ladder.
In other words, the very way we think about college makes it a finishing school for people from affluent families — and a glass ceiling for everyone else.
The invisible mismatch between higher ed and disadvantaged students
Going back to that survey sent out to high-level college administrators, it’s clear colleges expected their students to learn independent skills — but why exactly does this hurt disadvantaged students?
In their next study, Stephens, a social and cultural psychologist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, decided to look at what students wanted out of college. She and her colleagues surveyed more than 1,400 incoming students whether they were in it for independent reasons (for themselves and their future) or interdependent reasons (for others or to work with others.)
As expected, the first-generation students, who tended to be from lower-class backgrounds, were more likely to have interdependent reasons — like helping their families after college — and less likely to have independent reasons, like to explore new interests or learn more about their existing interest.
There's a good reason for this.
"In a working-class context, where people have less economic safety net, it's much more dangerous to be all about you and express yourself and challenge the rules," Stephens told me.
University of Cincinnati psychologist Shane Gibbons, who has researched this topic and counsels first-generation students, said these students are often raised by parents who have working class jobs — and in those work places, being assertive or individualistic can get you fired.
"I think that experience of the parents' workplace is transferred to children," he said. "There's less of challenging of authority figures, but to some professors that looks as if the student isn't trying."
In addition, research shows that first-generation students tend to go to school for different reasons. An annual UCLA survey finds that first-generation students are more likely to go to school because their parents pushed them to do so — and because they see it as a way to ultimately get a job and support their family.
In contrast, middle- and upper-class families instill very different values from an early age.
Sociologist Annette Lareau followed dozens of children for a decade and found in her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods, that more privileged children tend to be raised to reason with and question authority.
She named this parenting style "concerted cultivation," and found that the skills that these children develop translate well to a middle- and upper-class environment.
And it's those people who fill the quads and administrative buildings on college campuses, and they come with a certain worldview about how successful humans should act. This is also true of second-tier schools, where students come from less affluent backgrounds, but administrators still come from upper-middle class backgrounds and exhibit upper-middle class expectations.
So all of this means there is a mismatch between these disadvantaged students and the college environment.
And this mismatch has a measurable effect on the first-generation students.
When Stephens and her colleagues tracked these students for two years, they found that students who had this interdependent bias had lower GPAs.
Let's fix the mismatch and see what happens
If the problem is that students are put in a university with expectations that didn't match with their background, then what would happen if we fix the mismatch — at least for a short time period?
That's what Stephens and her colleagues wanted to test. So they took 88 undergraduate students, about half of whom were first-generation students, and they gave each of them a welcome letter from the university president.
But here's the catch: Half of them got letters that promote independent thinking, and the other half got letters that promotes interdependent thinking.
Then they had the students solve a bunch of anagrams — basically word games.
What they found was that, when given the independent letter, first-generation students performed far worse than continuing-generation students.
But when first-generation students received the interdependent letter, their performance was on par with continuing-generation students, who have at least one parent attend college.
In another experiment, Stephens and her team found that first-generation students who read the independent letters perceived tasks as more difficult, compared to when they read the interdependent letters. It didn't have much of an effect on continuing-generation students.
So all the messages that colleges and their professors send about their expectations for their students could actually be hurting the kids who need the most help.
We have to talk about class — and Americans don't do that well
When these first-generation college students begin to struggle, there's something really pernicious that starts to happen. They already feel like they are at a disadvantage because of their background, and they start seeing themselves at the mercy of that expectation.
"In psychological literature, they call it stereotype threat," Gibbons, the University of Cincinnati psychologist, said. "When a prevailing stereotype is elicited, like being reminded of being undereducated, you'll see a decrease in their scores. That effect is that part of their cognitive resources are turned toward fighting against that stereotype — and in expending those extra cognitive resources, there are less cognitive resources for studying, researching, and such."
But classism is an incredibly hard thing to detect.
A few years ago, Gibbons and his colleagues interviewed a bunch of first-generation college students and found that, even though all the students said they have been in uncomfortable class-based situations, most of them had difficulty providing specific examples.
"Classism is so insidious that it's hard to identify the blatant and obvious examples," Gibbons said. "Maybe it's a conversation about vacation or buying books for school. It seems innocuous for most, but for them, it's an internal struggle. It's an emotional experience that builds up over time."
Part of this might be because there is a lack of class awareness in the US, and it's taboo in many circle to talk about our own class identities — especially on any specific level.
There are dozens of polls that make this point, like this one, which shows massive chunks of people who are in poverty believe they are part of the middle class, while a massive chunk of wealthy people put themselves in the same groups:
In short, we just don't have a great idea of how advantaged or disadvantaged we are.
But this means that, when lower-class students begin struggling in college, they blame themselves for their struggles. Gibbons says most of them were held to high standards in their hometowns and by their families, so asking for help feels like failure.
So they feel they are failing because they aren't as capable.
It reiterates the fear that they are the stereotype of the undereducated lower-class kid.
It's a fear that Gibbons himself has experienced.
He is a first-generation college student whose father was laid off from a steel mill in Pennsylvania. He recalls his undergrad days at Allegheny College, when he was hunkered down in his room, studying — and his friends went out all the time. He started to wonder whether they were just more capable than he was, whether they were able to study faster or better.
But now Gibbons has a framework to understand first-generation students, and he says he realizes the reason he was in college was because he knew it led to work, so he felt his social life could be put to the side. "For others who had more economic privilege, there was an opportunity for flexibility in that," he said.
Most first-generation kids don't gain this awareness.
And it’s not only grades that suffer. Only a quarter of first-generation students graduate after four years in college, and only half graduate after six years. In addition, only about one in 10 low-income first generation students graduate on time. This gap, between first-generation college students and students whose parents went to college, exists at all types of colleges.
Another study by Stephens and her colleagues shows that, even if these first-generation students make it through college, they don't learn the "rules of the game" and catch up to their peers. Instead, the gaps still exist in both social fit and academic performance.
Stephens put it this way:
Here's one way to close those class differences
A few years ago, Stephens and her colleagues conducted an experiment to try to short-circuit this process.
They sent the incoming freshmen at a private university an invitation to attend an hour-long student discussion about adjusting to college.
But not all the students attended the same kind of session.
One group attended a session in which panelists talked about their social class background, and how it affected their transition to college. This was called "difference education."
Another group attended a session in which social class backgrounds were not highlighted.
At the end of the school year, Stephens and her colleagues caught up with these students and surveyed them on their GPA.
Among the students who were in the standard session that didn't highlight social class, first-generation students had significantly worse GPAs.
But among those who were in the difference education sessions, first-generation students had pretty much the same GPA as continuing generation students.
And it looked like one reason was that first-generation kids who went to difference education session sought more college resources.
This is especially important, given the findings of a 2011 Stanford study that found students who were coached were more likely to stay in school.
Let's stop to think about how truly astounding this is: When students were told in a mere one-hour session that their class backgrounds shape their college experiences — and that they need to cater their actions accordingly — it influenced their ability to get caught up to everyone else.
It doesn't mean their experience wasn't harder. After all, they tend to work more in college, have more family responsibilities, and have larger financial barriers. Rather, it just means someone needed to tell them about the biases of higher ed they will have to overcome.
"In my research, first-generation college students are impressively resilient and optimistic," Gibbons said. "They belief in themselves, and have a desire to persevere.
"They wouldn't be in college if they weren't."
The soppressata problem is structural
Reeves, the Brookings scholar, recently wrote a book titled Dream Hoarders, which calls out the upper-middle class for hoarding opportunity and limiting mobility.
He writes about the policy problems that undergird this structural inequality, specifically critiquing the upper-middle class for their day-to-day actions, like calling in a favor to get an internship for your kid — and taking that spot away from someone else.
But New York Times columnist David Brooks, after talking with Reeves, came to another conclusion. In a now-infamous column, Brooks writes:
I was braced by Reeves’s book, but after speaking with him a few times about it, I’ve come to think the structural barriers he emphasizes are less important than the informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent.
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Brooks was mocked for these two graphs, and not because he downplays the structural barriers conservatives have so often tried to sidestep. After all, cultural signifiers aren't the main reason this chart happened:
Rather, it was because he used a ham-handed anecdote to argue that social and cultural barriers matter more than the policy-driven ones.
But here’s the thing: Brooks isn’t totally wrong. The social and cultural barriers he talks about are a structural problem, especially in higher education. And it’s particularly true at more selective colleges, where it's not just the administrators and faculty who come from upper-middle class backgrounds, but also most of the students.
It’s a difficult premise to wrestle with because that means a lot of the things upper-middle class people value about their identities are creating a glass ceiling — and, yes, that can include cured meats.
In fact, Amy Charpentier, who helps predominantly lower-class black students get through college at KIPP Delta, a charter school in Arkansas, said she teaches lessons on how to deal with the uncomfortable class-based situations students will face. And while she doesn’t have lessons on cured meats, she does have some using hummus.
One lesson uses hummus as an example of a new food they should try. Another is about how to deal with peers who use black stereotypes and invites them out for fried chicken — "we can go have fried chicken, as long as we can stop and get hummus and carrots for you." Ultimately, they are lessons that help students be aware of the cultural class context they are about to step into.
In study after study, we find this social and cultural mismatch — these constant microaggressions that suggest to these students that they don't belong. And it causes students to perform worse academically and struggle socially.
Charpentier told me about a bright student of hers who went to a top-tier liberal arts school. One day, the student heard people in her class using the word "misogyny" — assuming everyone knew that it was a word describing prejudice toward women.
But she didn't know what it meant. She felt out of place, and started to wonder if she's prepared for the work.
"A lot of the conversation are about how they have a lot of experiences other kids don't have," Charpentier said. "I have to say: You, who doesn't understand the word 'misogyny,' knows two languages, knows how to run a restaurant with your eyes closed, knows how to take care of kids. It's about: How do you find value in the experience you do have?"
What we want — yet who we are
Right now, we often talk about ways to help first-generation college students and lower-income students survive in the college environment.
But that's perhaps a short-sighted frame. The better question might be: How should colleges change to stop being institutions that reproduce wealth — to stop being finishing schools for the upper-middle class?
Stephens’s research gives us a lot of clues. In fact, she advises colleges in how to intervene and educate students about class in a way that isn't threatening, in a way that doesn't make people feel like they're stereotyped. Her hope is that the intervention raises student awareness about social class, allowing them turn into activists at their schools to make changes at an institutional level.
Charpentier, meanwhile, says her organization has developed partnerships with nearly 80 colleges nationwide and requires those partners to make some changes, like allowing her students to be on their campus early at a young age and fully funding things like laptops, textbooks, and internships. At some of these colleges, they’ve developed a pipeline that helps students transition to and persist through college.
Still, the way we think about college — and perhaps more importantly, the skills we insist we need our adults to have in order to be part of the dominant social class — has poisoned higher education for those who need it most.
Preaching the virtues of mobility and education are one thing. It's another to realize that one thing standing in the way might be the very values and attitudes that shape our identities.