Social class, higher education, and random thoughts from a parent

Jason DeParle’s New York Times December 22 profile of three young women from Galveston has created a great deal of online discussion despite the holidays and semester breaks, when you’d expect most faculty and higher ed journalists are ignoring these things. But the attention is deserved, both because DeParle’s piece is beautifully detailed and because he raises important issues about the difficulty working-class teenagers face in attending and completing college. In the article, you get a brief glimpse of the limits of programs like Upward Bound, the often-maddening financial aid bureaucracy at private colleges and universities, the difficult choices many of today’s college students face, and the ways in which social and cultural capital operate to magnify inequality. At one level, the three women are examples of successful educational changes in the past half-century: all graduated high school, and all have a few years of college, more than many in their own peers in Galveston or their parents’ generation of peers.

And yet DeParle is correct to describe their higher education paths as unfulfilled promises and a damning failure of institutionalized cooling-out. If after reading the article you’d like to throw the book at Emory’s financial aid office for underestimating the financial need of Angelica Gonzales, your view is broadly shared. If you want to shake these women’s current and former boyfriends for holding them back, be my guest. If you want to ask how an Upward Bound counselor didn’t coach high school seniors on the essential deadlines for filing material, I have the same questions.

From a parent’s perspective–my daughter is in the middle of her junior year in college, and my son is a high school senior–I am troubled by Annette Lareau’s elision of what happens in college with her cultural-capital research on middle-school-aged children:

Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college.

“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.”

The three women profiled by DeParle do not fit Lareau’s dichotomy of laissez-faire parenting by working-class parents and “concerted cultivation” by professional parents: the women busted out in high school, highly motivated to achieve and using the resources given them as substitutes for whatever cultural capital Lareau observed in her professional-class family sample. Lareau’s portrayal of professional-class parents as successful helicoptering is inconsistent with her book’s argument (that childhood experiences under “concerted cultivation” teach how to be a successful young adult in a professional track) and also at odds with my observations as a parent and faculty member. The few helicopter parents I have encountered in my role as a faculty member have not generally helped their children. The college students who survive academic and personal difficulties have a range of resources, but parents swooping in to call financial aid and the presidents’ office is not what I think of as great support, nor is it what students tell me they need. To paraphrase from the title of a book on parenting young adults, college students tell me that in addition to financial support, they see their parents as most important as consultants for being a functioning adult.

What the young women in the DeParle story and their peers need is coaching, not helicoptering, and more effective public policies. Some thoughts on related issues:

  • I’m mostly sticking with my nuts-and-bolts advice for ninth-graders from a few years ago, when my daughter was a high school senior: get your act together now to make sure your first semester grades are at least a mix of Cs and Bs, and they need to head up from there; read more than what’s required; go as far in math as you can; take classes that have the best reputation for making students write good papers; take SATs or ACTs in your junior year; tell your parents to put their financial information in one place starting early fall of senior year; expand your college possibilities in one dimension from what you’re being told by those around you; and find a buddy or an adult who will make sure you meet key deadlines for applying for colleges and financial aid in your senior year in high school.
  • Avoiding common problems in college requires either some logistical knowledge/habits or someone close to students who can influence their behavior. Where Lareau’s “concerted cultivation” is relevant, the transfer of cultural capital happens long before college, because that type of knowledge and set of habits help college students who tell their parents little as well as students who are talking to their parents every day. Colleges often try to create substitutes for such knowledge through orientation, “university experience” courses, residence hall staff, academic advisors, and so forth. The effectiveness of such efforts is beyond my knowledge of the research. I suspect peer effects are especially important, but I do not know the literature in the area. An open question is whether newer forms of coaching can substitute for the on-campus resources–this would be especially important for commuter students, and also a way to provide support for student-athletes without incurring one of the major risks to academic integrity (having athletic-department academic-support staff do work for students).
  • The relationships among paths through college, financial aid, different forms of debt, and student work patterns are impossible to reconstruct from publicly-available statistics. Some pieces of this puzzle are available publicly, such as the proportion of graduates with identifiable college-related student loans and the average of such loans for college graduates. But people who leave without a degree? Or those who use credit cards to pay for living expenses while in college? Or those whose parents (somehow after the recession) use home equity to help pay for their expenses? Good luck! As a consequence, research on the financial issues related to college success is inevitably tough. We are fortunate to have some very good researchers in the area right now (e.g., Sue Dynarski and Sara Goldrick-Rab). But after doing some exploring with some undergraduates interested in the area, I think that any engagement in this research requires high levels of research skills and high levels of support for the research. No, we do not have “all the answers” on the financial piece of getting students through college, and anyone who makes such a claim should be challenged forcefully on that point.
  • From DeParle’s description, Emory financial aid belongs in a special level of hell for manipulating/misreading data. To begin with, they use the College Board Financial PROFILE, one of the most unethical pieces of “financial aid” paperwork ever invented. To use the PROFILE, a student signs into the College Board and registers. And then they’re given access to worksheets to fill in up to a few hundred different entries. Here is this year’s 18-page worksheet and the 11-page set of additional instructions that the College Board recommends students and their families use to prepare for data entry if they want to see a single dollar of aid from participating institutions for 2013-14. I have a doctorate in history and a masters degree in demography; my wife has a masters degree in special education and a bachelors in math. For us, it’s a mere headache. Want to know where social capital is important to college students? Completing the damned PROFILE, for those in private non-profit higher-ed. I would like to know if any financial aid office that requires the PROFILE ever requires its staff to go into public high schools and assist poor families with preparing the information required for it. I am not surprised that Emory shorted Angela Gonzales; yes, Emory requires the PROFILE, and then decides that a student who could not have had the social capital required to complete it should be denied significant aid. As I mentioned above, that deserves a special type of hell.1

My heart goes out to the three women DeParle followed. They are much like many students I have taught and more than a few of my children’s friends. Yes, they’ve made some mistakes, but every young adult who goes to college makes mistakes. Not every young adult who makes mistakes in college leaves without a degree.


  1. Public colleges and universities have their own weaknesses in financial aid offices, which often revolve around understaffing rather than the use of the PROFILE. In general, I focus my comments on public higher-education institutions because that’s where the majority of students attend. But private institutions, both for-profit and non-profit, deserve attention, if for different issues. []

One response to “Social class, higher education, and random thoughts from a parent”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    I thought the cooling-out was a great success!

    Erving Goffman makes an interesting point about the “You can be anything that you want to be” line institutions use to “hook” students —

    “In our society, as in most others, the young in years are defined as not yet persons. To a certain degree, they are not subject to success and failure. A child can throw himself completely into a task, and fail at it, and by and large he will not be destroyed by his failure; it is only necessary to play at cooling him out. An adolescent can be bitterly disappoint[ed] in love, and yet he will not thereby, become, at least for others, a broken person. A youth can spend a certain amount of time shopping around for a congenial job or a congenial training course, because he is still thought to be able to change his mind without changing his self. And, should he fail at something to which he has tried to commit himself, no permanent damage may be done to his self. If many are to be called and few chosen, then it is more convenient for everyone concerned to call individuals who are not fully persons and cannot be destroyed by failing to be chosen.”

    Not so much, now. Right?

    Even more to the point is Joseph Gusfield’s summary of Goffman (1952):

    “Erving Goffman has pointed out the difficult problem posed for social systems by the necessity to inflict defeat and failure on some persons” and that “difficult problem [of] inflict[ing] defeat and failure on some persons” is now increasingly being handled by our education system under the guise of a neutral, but equally faceless and bureaucratic, meritocracy.