First-generation college students balance conflicting social class identities with university support

Research Triangle Park, NC— First-generation college students, who often come from working-class backgrounds, may struggle with their class identity when attending a university where most students are from middle to upper-middle class families. A new study by an RTI International researcher shows that first-generation students are able to balance conflicting social class identities with proper support from their university.

Three factors appeared to influence first generation students’ ability to balance their conflicting social class identities: studying social class in their coursework, participating in a student organization designed to support first-generation undergraduates, and mentorship from faculty and staff.

“First-generation, working-class college students face the prospect of upward social mobility and pressure to assimilate into the middle class, particularly at elite colleges,” said Serena E. Hinz, Ph.D., research education analyst at RTI and author of the study. “This study shows that with the proper peer support, role models, and education, first-generation college students can move into the middle class and feel at peace with both the working-class and middle-class aspects of their identities.”

The study, published in the Journal of College Student Development, examined the experiences of a sample of first-generation, working-class college students from a highly-selective public university. Each student interviewed could be labeled “working-class” based on their parents’ education, occupation, and income. None of the first-generation students’ parents could afford the total cost of attendance and all had some form of financial aid.

Students were asked to provide a holistic view of their undergraduate experiences, including academics, family, finances, and sociocultural issues. They were also prompted to explain their understanding of social class labels such as working-class and upper-class, their perceptions of and experiences with social class on campus and at home, and the reasons why some people are working-class.

This qualitative data was used to develop an expanded model of class-identity reformation, which refers to a change in the social class to which people feel they belong.

“While the first-generation students in this study recognized class differences, I found that they did not choose loyalty to one class group,” Hinz said. “While some students retained working-class identities, most of them wanted to belong to the middle class, upper middle class, or upper class, and did not mention a desire to remain in the working class.”

Students studied experienced class difference outside the classroom and also studied social class in the classroom. Those who participated in a student organization designed to support first-generation undergraduates were regularly reminded that they were not alone. Overall, students who received university support through mentorship and the first-generation student organization did not develop an attitude of opposition toward either the working-class or middle-class.

“Colleges should consider encouraging faculty to include social class-related material where appropriate,” Hinz said. “Also, by having social interaction with other working-class students, first-generation students can feel like there are others on campus who share their struggles.”

Highlights

  • A new study by an RTI International researcher shows that first-generation students are able to balance conflicting social class identities with proper support from their university
  • Three factors appeared to influence first generation students’ ability to balance their conflicting social class identities: studying social class in their coursework, participating in a student organization designed to support first-generation undergraduates, and mentorship from faculty and staff