Hidden Help and Hiding Out in College

There’s a growing literature on how intensely middle class parents invest in their children’s success, from Annette Lareau’s now classic study  showing the “concerted cultivation” parenting of extensive  involvement in extra curricular activities, driving, advising, and being audience for children’s many performances; to extensive involvement in children’s daily challenges; to ongoing advice  and engagement in students’ college success and then negotiating connections for first jobs.

I mention this research when I’m talking with faculty and staff who so often lament that First Generation college students “won’t ask for help”.  We talk about how students who may have had to be incredibly independent and self-motivated and resourceful to get themselves to college may believe that they now have to prove that they can do it on their own, or may be doubting that they deserve help, or may simply not know that help is available.  Or they may balk at the term “help” that can imply  that they are in trouble.

I talk about this literature in middle class child-rearing to remind colleagues that most college kids whose parents have college degrees have had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of hidden “help” before they ever set foot in a college classroom.  In their terrific book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality,  Elizabeth Armstrong and Linda Hamilton write of one such student who was admitted to a competitive professional graduate program:

Here Taylor’s parents coaching, inside information, and efforts to keep her on track academically paid off.  These benefits however were invisible to those evaluating her, as they were instantiated in her record.  Taylor … simply looked more intelligent, accomplished, and suited for the professional than most applicants.  (p. 200).

So when I read the headline about this new study about the success of  “intensive” college counseling for low-income students, I thought at first that we might be talking about similar levels of support to those now taken for granted by the children of college graduates.

But no. The low-income students in this study –who attend high schools with exceptionally high student-to-counselor ratios — were able to access one hour of counselor time every two weeks.

But this one hour mattered in where students wound up going to college.

When we talk about ways to support First Generation students in going to and succeeding in college, I want to also talk out loud about the genuinely intensive “help” that their middle-class peers have had.  I want to talk out loud about how this help is made invisible.

And I want to talk very specifically about explaining to First Generation students that in going to office hours, lobbying the financial aid staff for information, connecting with the campus counselors, or staying on the radar of academic advisors, they are still accessing a fraction of the “help” that others take for granted.

And that it will matter.

And that in doing so, they’ll continue their trajectory of getting themselves where they want to go, step-by-step,  chipping away at the odds stacked against them from the start.


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