First Gen Students and Assumptions of Classlessness.

creative commons licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by kevin dooley

My campus has a new Equity and Inclusion Facebook group. This morning, I noticed that a colleague who has an excellent reputation for work in education and social justice had posted a link (without comment) to an article from the Cal Berkeley’s Alum publication: The Struggle to Be First: First-Gen Students May Be Torn Between College and Home.

It’s a relatively long piece for an alum publication, and author Alina Tugend has talked to authors who have done research about First Generation students and contacted programs in other places.  I believe that she set out to write a comprehensive and empathetic piece.

And still, I’ve read and reread the article multiple times and cannot find a single reference to any strengths that First Generation  — or their families — bring to the college experience beyond mention that one young woman is “diligent”.

First Gen students are portrayed here (kindly, to be sure), as exotic “others” who experience college as “going to a different country” and need “help”, who feel like “you can’t fit in”.

In short, it’s an article about how social class complicates access to college, without ever acknowledging class until the very end.  Almost as an aside after a litany of many ways that First Gen students are on the brink of failure, the author mentions a study showing that open discussion of social class led to to more academic and social engagement than did more generic discussion of obstacles to success in college.

So: talking openly about social class may enable to First Gen students to frame their experiences within broader contexts of inequality, yet it takes pages of patronizing language about “spelling everything out” and “helping” students and the recitation of data on drop-out rates and disengagement before we even learn that.

To be clear, the author has taken an unacknowledged stance here:  First Generation students need remediation and help, and she invests pages on how this might be done. Only as a side-note does she hint that perhaps we could start by simply acknowledging that more is at work here than naive parents and timid students  — but also formidable class barriers to education at the very border of middle class membership.

So I’ve been thinking about tweaking the language in the piece to acknowledge the dailiness of living as a classed being at the borders of class mobility.  For example:

  • Yes, parents may “fear that they’ll [their children] will evolve into someone the family no longer recognize”.  They also likely know the real judgment and disdain they experience in encounters with highly educated people, so it may not be so much fear as informed expectation.
  • First Gen students may “feel like you don’t fit in”.  Yes.  But this is not a psychological quirk.  First Gen students are reminded that they don’t belong multiple times a day, from the awkward pauses in conversations with privileged peers who know nothing about lives different from than their own,  to the necessity of navigating rules that are never spelled out (what the article refers to the “hidden curriculum”, without ever raising the question of who, why, or how it’s hidden if it’s important for success).
  • Yes, First Generation may need professors to “explain everything”, just as more privileged peers have had “everything” explained to them about college success since birth.   I’ve yet to see an article suggesting that there’s something almost pitiful about privileged students calling home for advice about course selection, internships, or how to negotiate one’s way out of the program requirements or bad grades.   Yet when First Generation students expect faculty and staff to actually explain what is needed for success, they’re described as exotic others in an alum magazine.

Besides taking issue with what’s written here, I also take issue with what is not.   Parents are rendered in single dimensions and are represented as speaking in only single sentences of disapproval to their children: they are fearful, naive, distant, seemingly selfish.  But they likely also are proud, loving, confused and ashamed that they can’t do more. They’re likely also sometimes funny and at least some make sure that they cook their kids’ favorite meals when they come home from college.   But we rarely read about the parents of First Gen students in ways beyond framing them as part of the problem.

There’s no mention here of real institutional barriers like rising tuition and decimated financial aid (it’s mentioned only in passing that one student is working three jobs).

There’s no mention of the First Gen/ Low-income student groups who are insisting that campuses have open and ongoing conversations about class privilege, not just remediation of the “needs” of First-Gen students.

There’s no mention of how elite parents put pressure on admissions officers to admit their under-qualified children — and certainly no mention of how campuses then provide special services to address the “needs” of those who may not have met admissions requirements.

Of course poor and working class parents may not understand the place of the Ultimate Frisbee club and study abroad.  And of course that can leave students feeling torn. But it is legislators, Boards of Regents, those managing college endowments, and those setting policies about financial aid who create very real obstacles to many First Gen students being able to travel or be involved in student life.

Yet no one is talking about how limited those power brokers are in their understanding of the the needs of First Gen students.

Ms. Tugend says nothing about her own class background here — authors rarely do.  Yet she has her own Wikipedia page, from which I could search to find that someone with the same name as her father received a scholarship at Berkeley in 1948. Ms. Tergund herself has a degree from Berkeley and two from Yale.

And in her article, I don’t find a single acknowledgement of the strengths of any of those she writes about beyond descriptions of one young woman as “diligent”.

Even while she writes kindly of those she seems to know so little about.

Fitting In, and Being Made to Understand That You Don’t Belong

In England, Peter Brandt, the head of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has written that

 bright children are less likely to apply to top universities because they are worried about “not fitting in”. He said that they need to become more comfortable with middle-class social setting such as restaurants, theatres and offices if they are to succeed.

He argued further that politicians place ” too much focus on education, and often fail to realise the need to make poorer children feel “comfortable” in middle class settings”.  He recommends that  “visiting different places, watching plays and having varied hobbies can help give working class children ‘shared cultural experiences’ with those from middle-class backgrounds”.


I remember a day early in my academic career when I was talking with come colleagues  about a novel I’d just read and loved.  I knew that this was a prestigious, not a “popular” author, so I believed that I was on solid ground in talking about my love of this book with two women that I considered friends.

I’d barely started when one interrupted to say “yes.  And it’s so brilliant how she’s retelling [some Shakespeare play] in a modern setting”.

And then there was that long silence that was by now so familiar to me.

And the two of them looked at each other.  And looked back at me.  And it was left to me to recover and move on, but of course there was no way to do that gracefully so I’m sure that I changed the subject.

There was no discussion at the point of the disparities in education that leave many of us without access to knowledge about Shakespeare.

There was certainly no open discussion about why gaps in my understanding of Shakespeare mattered in any way.

There was no further talk about the things that I did find so compelling about the novel.

There was no quick synopsis of the Shakespeare play or invitation to think together about how the author had woven themes from the play into the novel.

There was a very awkward silence, from women that I considered friends.  And while they were friends,  they were also each above me in the academic hierarchy, so I sensed to the core that this moment mattered in ways that stretched far beyond the momentary awkwardness.

Because it was all about the fact that I’d just revealed in yet another way they were very open about their judgment  that I didn’t “fit in” with their conceptions of who an educated person should be.


I grow weary of articles like this in which there is never anyone making others understand that they don’t fit in.

I grow weary of the argument that middle class culture is a neutral land with open borders than anyone can simply enter, rather than a social barrier that is carefully protected.

I grow weary that there is never any discussion in articles like this about the vital necessity of educating all students to understand the structural stratification of  social worlds, and never any mention of educating privileged college students to understand that they did nothing to earn the education that they’ve enjoyed and have no right to judge those were educated elsewhere.

If working-class students don’t feel that they fit in, it’s because others are making sure that they understand that they don’t fit in.

And that’s something that we can do something about in schools and colleges, once we get past the eye-rolling and awkward silences that happen with privileged students and faculty meet people like poor and working-class people for the first time.

We Can’t Educate Our Way Out of Inequality

I’ve been talking about this in my courses for years:

We’re the only nation in the developed world that relies so heavily on education for addressing core inequalities in the economic system.

The entire transformation of schools into test-prep factories in being done in the name of preparing students for the many jobs requiring higher levels of education.  Every week, I see someone argue that our schools — and our economy —  are failing because kids can’t pass the tests of knowledge that they need for competing in an increasingly technological world.

Today, the New York Times published an analysis about why education alone can’t account for growing income inequalities.

There is good reason to resist the proposition that education and technology are solely responsible for growing inequality. It provides political leaders an excuse to cast the problem as beyond the reach of policy.

“It can suck all the air out of the conversation,” Professor Autor acknowledged. “All economists should be pushing back against this simplistic view.”


Professors Katz and Autor agree that an array of policies is needed to address the labor market’s lopsided distribution of economic rewards. They range from a higher minimum wage to help lift the income of service workers at the bottom of the market to a larger earned-income tax credit.

More technical training could help upgrade the skills of high school graduates. Steeper income taxes on the very rich could curb the accumulation of income at the top. Perhaps most important, the design of macroeconomic policies might give more weight to maintaining low unemployment.

“Education is certainly part of the answer, but it is certainly not a complete answer,” Professor Katz said.

Yes.  Education is certainly part of the answer and we need excellent schools for all children.

But the air has been sucked out of most any other conversation, especially conversations about creating the same basic safety nets and social policies that support children in so many of the countries with those elusive higher test scores.