'Class and Campus Life'

Author discusses new book about class inequality at an elite university.

April 29, 2016

Campus protests have triggered wide-ranging discussion and debate about race. And, because some of the most prominent protests have unfolded at universities like Yale, Princeton and Harvard Universities, those discussions have touched on the experience of minority students at elite, wealthy institutions. While class is often implicated in those debates, it is rarely the focus. Elizabeth Lee seeks to inject issues of class into campus discourse with her new book, Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite College (Cornell University Press). In it, she describes the experiences of students with lower socioeconomic status at a wealthy women’s college that she does not identify but refers to as Linden. The book illustrates a variety of ways in which class inequality influences students, the institution itself and the interplay between the two.

Lee is an assistant professor sociology at Ohio University. She answered questions about her book via email.

Q: Maybe the best place to start is with a phrase you define early in the book and reference often: the semiotics of class morality. Can you talk about what you mean by this and how it played into what you found during your research?

A: In using this phrase, I wanted to address the way that class works beyond access to resources, more than just some students having money and others not, for example. Rather, I draw on Andrew Sayer’s (and others’) observations that class is linked to ideas about better and worse, more and less legitimate -- i.e., moral judgments. We can see how this plays out in popular culture quite easily: working-class or low-income people are often framed as buffoons or less intelligent, while wealthy people and middle-class people are framed as hardworking, regular or simply having desirable lives.

Narratives about merit in higher education map really closely onto these broad formulations with the idea that hard work and merit are how you gain access to selective or highly selective schools. This conceptualization minimizes the vast range of advantages that middle- and upper-socioeconomic-status students have through family and school and (often) extracurricular supports. This doesn’t mean that those middle- or upper-SES students don’t work hard -- certainly they do -- but that they are working with the grain and with some boosts, which tends to get left out of the hard-work narrative. At elite colleges like the one I studied, middle- and upper-income students tend to be understood as typical, while low-income, first-generation students are the exceptions, the outsiders coming in. Echoing what we see in broader popular culture, middle- and upper-income student experiences are presented as common, and the kinds of jobs their parents have are presented as desirable. By contrast, there’s very little discussion of class inequality, or of working-class or low-income lives, except as something to leave behind.

I used the word “semiotics” to communicate how pervasive and often under the surface such ideas are, and how intertwined these ideas are to other important concepts associated with college, like merit and achievement. I don’t think that college administrators or faculty intentionally construct this semiotics or sense of insider/outsider, but this positioning is part of what happens in a great deal of college discourse.

Q: Each chapter in your book examines the role of class inequality in different kinds of interactions on campus, from college discourse to campus activism. I wonder if you can briefly describe some of the important ways class functions in two of the settings you investigated. First, friendships between students?

A: One of the assumptions I went into this project with was that low-income and first-generation students would want to be friends with people who shared their background -- this is both a common sociological finding and an intuitive sense -- and also that students would be able to tell who shared their background. Instead, what I found was that students generally arrived on campus eager to make friends and pretty much made friends with those around them -- whether they arrived worried about class differences or not. Partly this is because everyone just wants to meet people, they’re new and trying to find their spot, and partly because people don’t know how to locate each other by class background. While low-income students had a general sense that most people came from more money than they did, they didn’t always know exactly how much, and they didn’t know who else around them might be more like themselves.

What this means is that low-socioeconomic status students very often had friendships, including close and best friendships, with wealthier peers. On one hand, this is great: if we are worried about students feeling alienated or isolated, having cross-class friendships is a good sign.

[But] this was difficult especially because students don’t have a good way to talk about class inequality. So I found these friendships that crossed class lines, with deep emotional ties and lots of genuine care and warmth, but with deep underlying tensions or untouchable conversations that people would just kind of bury or work around because it was too awkward, difficult or painful to discuss them and no one knew how to do it. So class was very important in students’ friendships and social lives, but in ways I hadn’t expected.

Q: And second, the formal relationship between students and the college itself?

A: First, the college itself, physically and in other ways, was a very classed space. The traditional and well-manicured appearance of the campus, the commonly presumed backgrounds of the students who go to school there, the topics of conversation you hear around campus, and many other examples all communicated the space as being middle or upper SES. Students from middle- and upper-income backgrounds tended to be better able to navigate the college and to feel more immediately comfortable there.

Second, although the college as a body -- as well as the individual people I met who worked there, faculty and administrators alike -- wanted to welcome students without regard to background, they had a difficult time talking about class inequality. In this way the relationship between the college and low-SES students was parallel to the one I describe between students: this big issue mostly loomed without being addressed in effective ways. At the institutional level, a silence around class inequality helps the space remain very classed -- it looks and feels and is assumed to be a middle- or upper-class space, and middle- and upper-class student experiences are usually what are presented as normal, ideal and central, so that look and feel is not questioned or disrupted.

Q: The identity of the college where you spent two years researching this book is disguised, as are all the other names in the book, but you do describe it as “a selective women’s liberal arts college located in the Northeast” that is “elite” and “offers plenty of financial aid.” I wonder how many of the dynamics you observed are likely to be similar on different kinds of campuses -- large publics, less wealthy privates, etc.?

A: I do think there are some differences -- one prominent one being that at a large campus, there may be room for a wider variety of social niches and more anonymity. However, having spent time at institutions very different than the one I studied (the University of Pennsylvania, a large private campus in a city that’s also predominantly affluent students, where I went to grad school; and Ohio University, a large public campus in a small town that’s less markedly affluent but nonetheless majority non-first[-generation], where I now work) -- I see some aspects that are similar.

One example that was a little surprising to me is the language around community. I talk in the book about the contrast between the image of college as community, or even family, while also feeling like an outsider. This was really prominent at Linden, which is a small campus, and it was something I thought might be quite different at a larger campus. However, Ohio University uses very similar language, and my students there talk about the very emotional expectations for college life -- not only as the “best four years” but also of the friendships and close ties you’ll make there. That contradiction is frustrating for low-SES students: on the one hand, campus is shown as this inclusive community where people are forming lifelong friendships, but on the other hand you’re partially excluded. Some issues I write about are actually amplified at other campuses. For example, the ways in which students try to manage their social lives in a setting where most of their peers have more money than they do. Linden has a pretty campus-based social system. At a campus like Penn, by contrast, there are much more immediate ways to spend money because of the close proximity to Philly’s downtown, whether it’s dinner or clothes or nightclubs.

Q: Your book focuses very specifically on class and socioeconomic status, but, in light of recent protests and controversies at institutions like the very one you investigated, I wonder whether you think your work might shed some new light on discussions about race on campus, and if so, how?

A: Some issues or experiences are specific to racialized power structures -- racism is racism, and applied to nonwhite students whether they come from affluent backgrounds or low-income backgrounds. But I do think there are commonalities in some ways.

What I see is a shared element of a demand to be recognized, to not be tokenized or used as a symbol -- or at the very least not in an empty way. In some ways that element is perhaps amplified for students of color because they are often literally more visible and therefore easier for campuses to point to -- for example, when a group of students of color get together to sit outside in the spring, and a campus photographer comes to take your picture and it’s used in campus materials to show that there are students of color. That’s harder to accomplish regarding class, but the same dynamic exists: students of color and low-SES students are sometimes frustrated by being essentially used as publicity, especially when they do not feel supported or even welcomed on campus.

Q: Lastly, you spend a little time in your conclusion thinking about what colleges can do to better support low-socioeconomic-status students. Can you highlight here one or two of the things you think colleges may not be doing but ought to start?

A: In my current research projects, I’ve been interviewing faculty members from low-SES backgrounds and student organizers of campus groups that support low-SES students. Some of what I’ve been learning from those interviews is really relevant here. For example, faculty have pointed out steps they take to support low-SES students that actually help all their students -- for example, requirements to see the professor during office hours at least once to get feedback, assignments that get students talking to people they wouldn’t otherwise and efforts to keep textbook and material costs low. So some of what is good practice for supporting low-SES students is also good practice for supporting students generally -- I think this is important to recognize, so that we don’t fall into a way of thinking of low-SES students as needing undue support. I think colleges would be well served by helping faculty members learn how to support low-SES and other students in these types of ways, and by letting faculty members know what kinds of resources exist to help low-SES students should they need extra support. For that matter, it would be great for many faculty members to learn how to address these topics with students -- class inequality is hard to talk about, and managing interpersonal issues is not what we are generally trained for as faculty members.

I also think student-organized clubs that provide safe spaces for low-SES students are good things, especially on campuses where the majority of students are middle or upper SES. It can be really difficult for students to locate one another, and the ways that colleges traditionally have approached supporting low-SES students, namely through financial aid, do not include any means for students to socialize or confide or make connections. That’s simply not the role of the financial aid office. So, it helps for there to be a space that students use to do those things, and to serve as a clearinghouse for information and other resources. Students at many campuses are beginning to make this happen for themselves, and I think colleges and universities should support this as much as possible.


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