class and college

When awareness about the impact of socio-economic class was not as prevalent among the public, one exercise I did with my undergraduates at elite institutions was to ask them to identify their class background.  Typically, students self-identified as being in the middle class, even when their families’ household incomes/net worth placed them in the upper class.  The NYT recently published this article showing the composition of undergraduate students, unveiling the concentration and dispersion of wealth at various higher education institutions.

As a professor who now teaches at the university listed as #2 in economic mobility (second to Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology ), I can testify to the issues that make an uneven playing field among undergraduates.  Unlike college students whose parents can “pink helicopter” on their behalf and cushion any challenges, undergraduates at CCNY are supporting their parents (if alive) and other family members, bearing the brunt of crushing challenges. (In a minority of cases, students’ parents might help out, say, with occasional childcare – but more likely, students are caring for sick family members or helping with younger siblings.)

To make the rent and cover other expenses in a high COL city, CCNY students work part-time and full-time, sometime with up to two jobs, in the low-wage retail sector.  They do so while juggling a full load of classes because their financial aid will not cover taking fewer classes.  For some students, these demands can create a vicious cycle of having to drop out of classes or earning low grades.

I always tell students to let me know of issues that might impact their academic performance. Over the years (and just this semester alone), students have described these challenges:

  • long commutes of up to 2 hours
  • landlord or housing problems
  • homelessness
  • repeated absences from class due to hospitalizations, illness/accidents, or doctor visits for prolonged health problems
  • self-medicating because of fear about high health care costs for a treatable illness
  • anxiety and depression
  • childcare issues (CCNY recently closed its on-campus childcare facility for students), such as a sick child who cannot attend school or daycare that day
  • difficulties navigating bureaucratic systems, particularly understaffed ones
  • inflexible work schedules

These are the tip of the iceberg, as students don’t always share what is happening in their lives and instead, just disappear from class.

For me, such inequalities were graphically summed up by a thank you card sent by a graduating undergraduate.  The writer penned the heartfelt wish that among other things (i.e., good health), that I always have a “full belly.”  Reflecting this concern about access to food, with the help of NYPIRG, CCNY now has a food pantry available to students.

Written by katherinechen

March 22, 2017 at 5:18 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this. I just taught Sara Goldrick-Rab’s new book, Paying the Price, which does a really nice job of getting at this — what the typical lower-income student faces in getting through college. (And the total failure of the financial aid system to provide them with adequate support.) Because it’s drawn from a random sample of Pell recipients (in WI, but still), it just casts a whole different light on who college students are and what sorts of challenges they face in trying to get through. It’s a nice corrective to the myopic picture of higher ed that many faculty (myself included) default to.


    Beth Popp Berman

    March 23, 2017 at 1:41 am

  2. What a lovely and thoughtful post. Thank you for writing it and thank you for seeing it. I too wish you always a full belly!



    March 23, 2017 at 3:17 pm

  3. I teach on a campus of an elite public institution where the model student is pretty well off to affluent but lower income students are also present as a significant minority. One important teaching strategy (especially in classes that address issues of inequality) is to name and acknowledge the wide diversity of experiences and situations of the students sitting in the lecture hall. It helps if you ask students about their backgrounds and concerns at the beginning, in some sort of anonymous or only-to-you format, so you actually know. Lecturing as if all the students in the room are affluent (even if the modal student is) will alienate and discourage those from less affluent or struggling backgrounds, and make them feel invisible, on top of their material struggles. Students from all backgrounds seem more engaged when their differences are named. One term, I talked about students who send money home to their families. Student responses (I collect them after every class, another important teaching strategy) ranged from the affluent students’ “I am shocked” to the students who said “I send money to my family.” Reporting on this diversity back to the students about the very classroom students were sitting in was, I think, educational for all. Plus, as Katherine stresses, it reminds us not-poor tenure-track profs to pay attention to the issues some students in our classes are facing.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 24, 2017 at 2:53 am

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