Socioeconomic Status and Prestigious College Education

I don’t know how I feel about Monica Bielski’s article, “My Hidden Class Consciousness”, because of the way she forms her ideas about socio-economic status and its effect on college students’ social identity. Her position on the matter seemed privileged, yet filled with grievances against a seemingly good system. For example, she was accepted into Oberlin College, which she seemingly presents as a college that is rigorous, difficult, and a somewhat prestigious institution because of these faculties. If it is so rigorous and difficult, and prestigious, how did someone like herself get accepted into the school, if receiving a public school education and growing up in a middle-class family is such a drag? And why does she seem to think that because of her background of experiences that formed her social identity, she is somehow disproportionately affected by this system?

Monica defines Oberlin as a liberal arts private school that has a mission of talking about gender and racial inequality (213). Monica then argues that she began to notice how her social identity affected her academic experiences, and presents this to the reader by describing how socioeconomic status and its marginalizing effect upon social identity (which is somewhat accurate, but not entirely). I noticed that Monica focuses on social identity’s effect on academic experiences because she illustrates how “rich kids” at Oberlin wore “‘thrift store clothes’”, along with students of lower class families who could only afford to purchase clothes from thrift stores (213). And it seems this choice of clothes somehow corresponds to the fact that students from families of high socioeconomic status feel guilty for their lucky chances to be raised in families with wealth (218). The thrift store clothes, then, seem to symbolize this rich-guilt; and this symbolization becomes a metaphor for the prolific statement, and ironically lacking dialogue at Oberlin, about social identity and its transitive effect upon the academic status of the student.

I do not quite understand this argument about social identity’s effect on the academic experience of a student. Monica claims coming from a blue collar family affected her ability to more readily transition to college life than her peers from more wealthy / marketable white collar families; because her parents did not know about the process of applying for college, and were of therefore no help to her (216). In this way she equates socioeconomic status to social identity. However, in the same paragraph, she claims her father encouraged her to work hard in school. Does this not contradict her statement, that her parents did not know about the process of applying for college? Sure they might not have known much about the entire process, but they knew well enough to encourage their daughter to take advantage of the public education she was receiving in order to get into college. And did this not have a better effect on her than on some of her peers of an ostensibly better social identity? After all, she became class valedictorian, and got accepted to a college she describes as prestigious.

But wo to Monica: for she had noticed the strife of college when her reading and writing skills were not up to par for the level of rigorous work Oberlin assigned- and it must be because her social identity provided her no previous assistance or know how that was good enough (217). But that is the reality of prestigious, rigorous universities. Often the skills you learned before you get there are no longer good enough, and it requires years of work to improve them (isn’t that the point of college? You’re not supposed to be ready right out the gate, otherwise you wouldn’t need to go to college). It has nothing to do with a middle-class social identity. Sure, your socioeconomic status definitely has an influence upon whether or not you can get extra help from private schools or private tutors. But, that does not mean wealthy students don’t also struggle tremendously in college environments, which I have seen firsthand. I know first year students from wealthy families, who lived in Manhattan, or San Francisco; they’re damn wealthy, which allowed them the opportunity to have attended private schools all their lives. But they struggle too- they are up to four or five in the morning a few times per week, trying to catch up to the level of academic experience required from them to succeed. And these students for sure did not get to where they are now solely because of their parents. Sure, their parents must have been a major asset, but if they had not put in the work to get into college, than they clearly would not be there.

I come from a blue collar, working class family. I, too, went to public school. I also did not have many of the opportunities my peers had, who came from wealthier white collar families. And I had more opportunities than students I knew that were poorer than me. But I worked hard to get to where I’m at, Pitzer College. It was hard work, and I may have had to work a smidgen harder than some very wealthy students. But I noticed that my social identity, when juxtaposed along with a wealthier or poorer peer’s, is not the sole reason for why I got to where I’m at, or for why others succeeded or did not succeed.

I am not stating that open dialogue about socioeconomic status and social identity is a bad thing, or that this open dialogue does not have a positive effect on academic cultures. What I’m saying is Monica’s argument about for why she thinks colleges should have this conversation, based on her own middle-class experiences presented in her article, is a little vapid. Monica seems to have been privileged: she had a family she claims was wealthier than most white collar families, just less marketable; she had a family that encouraged her to work hard in her academics, which is more than most can say about their families (hell, mine encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, do well in school or don’t do well in school, as long as I was a reasonable and good person). And because of these reasons, Monica became her class valedictorian and therefore received financial aid from Oberlin (she claims it’s hard for middle-class blue collar families to pay for schools like Oberlin without aid, but if everyone received aid from such a prestigious university, how would the college get money to give out?) It seems to me that, by taking advantage of the public school system, and by having a fairly intuitive support network, her social identity did not affect her ability to enroll in college, at all. And therefore, socioeconomic status in regards to families like hers, are not the sole effect to which middle-class students could experience enough cultural friction to affect their academic performance. Clearly, it worked for her, and it worked for me. And it’s worked for many people I know from middle-class blue collar backgrounds. And therefore, social identities like hers are privileged compared to most.

The real people we need to wholeheartedly discuss are students and families of lower socioeconomic status, who are disproportionately disenfranchised in this way because of their race and gender. This causes enough cultural friction to effect social identity and academic experiences, because of the strife that follows systemic living conditions such as these.

So I get Monica’s point, but I don’t really understand Monica’s focus or reason for writing her article. It seems to not quite get the whole picture.

One thought on “Socioeconomic Status and Prestigious College Education

  1. Ian –

    Great and thorough blog post! Your blog post had many points that I also thought about while reading Bielski’s article. Bielksi’s position in her article was definitely contradictory, which you point out throughout your blog post, especially when she talks about being from a blue collar family. While, perhaps, for the sake of our class hearing from a student from a lower socioeconomic status would have drawn a more vivid, dramatic, and maybe complete picture of the effects of class in higher education, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss her words. Yes, you are right that her article does not paint a whole picture and that she contradicts herself, but she can and should be part of the conversation. A (possibly frustrating and complicated) conversation about the effects, both positive and negative, that class has on accessing higher education. I look forward to our class discussion on Tuesday!

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