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How Classism Functions On College Campuses: An Overview

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at VCU chapter.

Classism refers to differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. It implies that wealth is a determinant of power and value to society. Though this phenomenon can be inconspicuous in daily life, its impact manifests in various aspects of society. Classism exists in policy, healthcare and education, among other sectors. It’s rarely talked about in college, despite its prevalence in higher education. Classism in education manifests itself in different ways, including the admissions process, college culture and student experiences.

Socioeconomic status is relevant to the college admissions process, as well as to one’s experiences when attending college. With the increasing cost of college, it’s imperative to discuss the implications of such cost on students and the academic community. One study found that social class “had direct effects to life satisfaction, academic satisfaction and GPA, and first-generation status had direct effects to academic satisfaction and GPA. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

There is a direct connection between socioeconomic status and first-generation status. First-generation students are often students from lower social classes. The median household income of households headed by a first-gen graduate ($99,600) is substantially lower than that of households headed by second-generation graduates ($135,800). Having a college education allows access to better jobs and thus better economic outcomes. Second-generation students are shown to be more affluent than first-generation students and thus have access to better resources. Subsequently, those who have a college-educated parent are more likely to attend a four-year institution than those without a college-educated parent.

CLassism in college admissions

It’s important to note that classism does not originate on college campuses, it’s ingrained in the livelihood of many people, but is heavily influential in the college admissions process.

During the admissions process, it’s important to learn about the colleges one would like to attend. Information about the school’s location, social environment, student support services, culture and educational opportunities are extremely important, but do all students have access to the same information? Those with lower incomes have less access to such valuable information and resources; a notable example is Operation Varsity Blues, a 2019 DOJ sting that revealed the fraud of numerous wealthy parents in an effort to get their children into colleges like Stanford, UCLA, USC, Georgetown and Yale. The parents were accused of financially bribing colleges in exchange for their children’s acceptance to the schools. Many of the parents involved were eventually found guilty. Not only was this scandal illegal, but it also exposed the inherent privilege of the wealthy with regard to college admissions and resources.

Nearly 70 percent of the students at our most selective colleges are from a family in the nation’s top income quartile, while only four percent come from the bottom quartile. This disparity speaks to the significance of higher socioeconomic status; with higher income comes a kind of social power that those families could use to get into certain schools of higher prestige, thereby continuing class privilege.

My college admissions process was undeniably impacted by my socioeconomic status. In comparison to my peers, I didn’t have anyone who could serve as a resource while applying for college. Many of my peers had siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles who attended college and could give them insight into the application process and the experience as a whole. There’s an emphasis on getting the “college experience” when applying for and attending college, but this was far from my biggest concern as an applicant. Finances were the biggest determinant in my decision and ultimately made the decision for me. 

CLassism in college culture

The college experience of one from a lower social class compared to their upper-class counterparts is vastly different. Low-income students often have more to juggle during college; full-time jobs and financial hardships, along with academic obligations.

The growing dependence on technology is another aspect of university connected to classism; many universities, including VCU, require students to have some sort of laptop or tablet to participate in classes. Though this is a strict requirement, what does VCU (and other schools) do to mitigate the financial burden of this requirement?

Relative to other schools, I’m not sure that VCU has a particularly classist culture or structure, but our school is far from perfect. VCU increased tuition by 3% this year, in conjunction with increasing living expenses. Without adequate financial support, this places an additional burden on students, especially low-income students. VCU has made strides to consider the needs of first-gen students, namely by creating You-First as a community-building resource. Some low-income students have reported feelings that “their place was not earned but is instead an act of charity, that they were given someone else’s spot,” while students who were not low-income rarely reported this feeling.

In my experience, I have friends who have no financial worries, while I personally work both on-campus and off-campus jobs, also juggling classes and clubs. Not only does this shift the priority from school to survival, but it impacts one’s social life as well. The impact of financial stress is evident in students from a lower socioeconomic background; enrollment rates are lower, as are completion rates. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, while 81% of high-income high school graduates were enrolled in college, this figure dropped to 51% for low-income students. Only about 10% of low-income first-generation students graduate on time. 

This has an impact both socially and academically; “Financial stress is a key predictor of classism among college students. Those who felt more stress over their financial well-being experienced more exclusion from both academic and social spheres of university life.” How could you truly have “the college experience” under the continuing burden of financial instability? 

To address the class disparity in college admissions, resources directed towards students from low-income backgrounds should be incorporated into high schools and college prep programs. As a low-income, first-generation student, it was especially difficult to understand the college admissions process and college as a whole. This is often not a concern for those who have family members who went to college, or those of high social class, as they have the resources to understand how the system works and how to navigate it. While upper-class students may have access to tutors, mentors, application funds, and resources, low-income students often struggle with this, forcing them to focus on finances rather than deciding on a school.

Many studies suggest providing access to education is not enough to reduce inequity among social classes, so colleges should foster environments where equal achievement exists. Though some universities have made progress toward equal opportunities for students, equal opportunity doesn’t always lead to equal achievement.

Simply put, college is expensive. The costs to attend are direct, by way of tuition, room and board, and indirect, by way of food, living expenses, social events, clothes and emotional costs. The existence of these costs disproportionately impacts low-income students, who are often first-generation students. Ultimately, colleges should work towards providing and executing opportunities for students of different backgrounds to prosper in their own ways.

Raquel Jones is a senior at VCU majoring in Interdisciplinary Science with a minor in General Business. She is passionate about health equity for black women, and adverse health outcomes in women. You can typically find Raquel traveling, trying new foods, listening to podcasts or journaling.