It can be difficult to find writing on First Generation College students that doesn’t begin from a deficit standpoint.  First Generation students are presumed to lack “cultural capital“, access to basic information,  family support, or resilience needed to be successful.  These attributes are all, of course, contrasted with the experience, knowledge, social capital, savvy, and ambition of more privileged students who are presumed to arrive at college well-positioned to succeed.

It could be helpful to question more often what we might mean by “succeed”.  According to one recent project, at least some of the academically gifted, wealthy, and culturally savvy students of Harvard University  lack the most basic understanding of people different from themselves, but this racist ignorance has in no way stood in the way of their academic trajectories.

Because, of course, it’s those occupying the social class of these very students who make the rules about what does or doesn’t prepare one for success.  Using the wrong fork at a formal dinner?   One need go no further in that job interview.   Say ignorant things about race? Accuse those pointing this out of just playing “the race card”.

Missing the cues about table manners hurts no one, but  can mean missed opportunities to support oneself even after doing well in college.

Are there any consequences for the racism of Harvard students, when those very students will soon be hiring, sitting on college boards, and voting for candidates supporting their understanding of opportunity?


Update: Tressie McMillam Cottom dialed it in on Twitter this afternoon:



August 23, 2013

While President Obama is on his bus tour promoting his ideas for making college more affordable, so many barriers remain in place for low-income students.  The federal financial aid form — the FAFSA — is one barrier that could be fixed,  but isn’t.


Sara Goldrick Rab has been retweeting students’ laments about the FAFSA as another school year starts, and today she “Storified” the Tweets. This us a must read.


My colleague speak often about the financial aid available to our students.  My sense is that few people working in higher ed know how challenging the financial aid paperwork can be for many students — especially for First Generation students.

Blogger and scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom is writing about her work as an “admissions” counselor  at a for-profit university and subsequent research on the reasons that [primarily low-income] students are drawn to such expensive yet low-status places.  She writes that as she now asks students at her elite college whey they did not enroll at one of the many for-profits that they know about from TV ads and billboards, and they respond straightforwardly:  “That ‘s not a school for people like them.”.

Similarly, those attending the for-profits have internalized a sense of where they belong:

For-profit students are similarly hesitant during interviews when I ask them to discuss the milieu in which their educational choices were made. Even when fiercely proud of their education — and many of them are — there is a point of anger for many when asked to explain why a for-profit and not an area traditional college.

There is a sense, often unarticulated until I start prodding, that they made the best choice available to them.

Cottom frames the admissions decisions within deeper structural stratification, and despite the many ads for non-profits showing confident, aspiring young people nodding sagely at their computer screens or books, she finds that decisions to attend for-profits are embedded in pain of living at the bottom rungs of unequal social structures:

But the greatest correspondence between my data and the for-profit sector’s growth, admissions and matriculation processes is with the weakness in the economy. One finding jumps out immediately: more than educational aspiration and personal edification, fear and insecurity motivates the for-profit students I am interviewing.

This is brilliant and important work that I’ll be following.

First Generation Students

March 23, 2012

Inside Higher Education just published this interesting essay on how colleges might better service First Generation Students.

I deeply appreciate the attention on the complex journey of being “First”.  I appreciate the acknowledgement that first generation students are survivors.

Yet I struggle with the sense that  “survivor” implies victimhood.  Or perhaps, I struggle with how we can generate conversation about the challenges (clearly, often created by policies and practices that work against the interests of these students ) as well as the many strengths that First Generation students bring to our classrooms.

And I’d welcome more attention on the positive work ethic, the straightforwardness, the resiliency and the many other positive attributes of many First-Generation students, as these are things that all students (and their faculty) would do well to emulate.

I’ll be ordering the book today.   Does anyone want to read it together (virtually)?



Will My Colleagues Judge Me?

February 17, 2012

Home  sick, I’ve been clicking around  the web and came upon this post on Corporette, a blog read by thousands of young women seeking advice about clothing and etiquette in the corporate workplace — in other words, they come to this site for coaching in middle- class based norms of dress and behavior in professional settings.

This post made me sit up straighter.  Rather than asking about maintaining fashion sense in footwear even on snowy days (the more common sort of conversation on this site),  one young woman, an aspiring law student identifying herself as being from a poor background, asked this:

My fiance is a mechanic – he loves his career and would not change it for the world, however, I am worried – will my colleagues judge me because of this?

And the author of blog, and  202 commentors  (to date) weighed in.   What unfolds is a fascinating discourse on class and education, though it’s rarely named as such.
The owner of the blog first weighs in with classic blue-collar stereotypes (on which she’s called by several commentors):
Can he make dinner conversation with people on “educated” topics? On a more basic level, are his table manners and his grammar good (or is he open to improving them)?
In the discussion that follows,  a number of lawyers mention that they never encounter any working-class people in their work lives.    Many lawyers frame the issue personally — lawyers are by nature “self-absorbed” so they’d either not notice others or would possibly, as individuals, be snobs.  Others tell tales of working-class partners who behave in professional settings.   Only a few mention that many highly educated lawyers are lousy conversationalists and slobs at the table.
And there are stories here of other women who have experienced exactly the kinds of judgments that the questioner feared.
As is usually the case with blogs that generate this much response, nothing is resolved, but I’m fascinated that a young woman with high aspirations (and apparently, the accomplishments to justify them) knows, at this juncture in which she’ll take the next step into daily interaction with those from class backgrounds much higher than her own, that class matters in ways that her new colleagues may never understand.
The comments are worth the read.
What catches your eye in this complex conversation?

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