After World War II, American higher education sought to promote upward mobility for new student groups, with varying degrees of success. But in the decades that followed, the nation’s most selective colleges routinely ignored or turned away thousands of talented working-class and poor students from both rural and urban areas.
These colleges are finally acknowledging the persistent challenges facing such students. More of them, including the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where I work, have started offering free or sharply reduced tuition to low-income students and have established offices to support them academically and socially.
But do selective colleges truly understand the struggles low-income students face when they are surrounded by high percentages of undergraduates from much wealthier families?
Last year students in one of my courses, "The Experience of Social Class in College and the Community," wrote essays exploring class experiences from their family lives, K-12 education, communities, and undergraduate years. Some 45 current and former students in the course — who had grown up in poverty and the working class, as well in wealthy and middle-income families — contributed to an anthology I edited with Aubrey Schiavone called Social Class Voices: Student Stories From the University of Michigan Bicentennial (Michigan Publishing, 2017). In recent decades we’ve heard a lot about race and gender differences on colleges campuses, but we’ve heard much less about the struggles and advantages related to social class. Our anthology aims to help students, faculty members, and staff members better understand such issues. It presents stories of isolation and determination, honestly told by those born into poverty and the working class.