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Opinion | College is inherently classist, here is why

There are disparities between economic classes because lower-class students often have to juggle much more while in school

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A young adult studies at a coffee shop. Lower-class students often have to balance full-time college and work. // Photo courtesy of Tim Gouw via Unsplash

Imagine working between 40 and 50 hours a week, attending full-time college and balancing a social life. Then, imagine coming home to a roommate that has never worked a day in their life but has their college paid for. 

It can be frustrating.

If some students are working full time while other students have additional time to study, there is an inherent classist divide within the college environment. 

Liam Jordan, a third-year student majoring in political economy, has experienced this class divide in his time at the University of Washington. Jordan is working full time, while his roommate has never had a job. 

“Theoretically that would give him more freedom to do whatever he wanted during the day if it weren't for his obligations [due to] double-majoring in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees],” Jordan said. “It’s like that for a lot of wealthier students.”

Many students need to work through college because of the increasing cost of tuition. In the 2017-18 school year, the total cost of attendance was estimated to be $17,797 for public colleges, $46,014 for private nonprofit schools and $26,261 for private for-profit schools.

This is parallel to the median household income in 2018 of $64,324. Therefore, students were paying anywhere between 17-73% of their family’s household income for college.

In Whatcom County, the median household income in 2019 was $62,984 and the total cost to attend Western Washington University was estimated to be $25,005. Therefore, the cost to attend Western is around 40% of the median household income in Whatcom County. 

Katja Wahl, a 2020 graduate from Washington State University Everett in integrated strategic communications and business administration with a dual emphasis on automotive and industrial industries, feels that people who do not have to work through college don’t understand.

“One interesting thing for me at least was seeing how many people had school paid for by parents (I was 100% loans and grants) and how a large chunk of them looked down on grant kids or made the ‘why do you work so much?’ or ‘why don’t your parents chip in?’ remark,” Wahl said via email.

Financial hardships are at an all-time high for students due to COVID-19. These financial hardships have affected students disproportionately based on their social class background.

While 40% of wealthy students have not experienced financial hardships during the pandemic, only 6% of low-income and 10% of working-class students have not experienced these hardships.

Practically anything can cause these financial hardships such as medical bills, student debt or job loss. 

When low-income students are facing these hardships, how are they supposed to afford or have time for school?

Audrey Bean, a linguistics major at Western, is from a low-income family and feels that there has always been a marginalization of lower-class students.

“College is inherently a class privilege. While there are financial aid resources, discourse regarding such is very prevalent in low income communities,” Bean said. “Even if people from low income make it to college, they have to work full time and/or prioritize work over school for their basic needs to be met, something people in higher economic standing dont have to worry about. It’s a privilege to go to college and be able to prioritize your studies all the time.”

Outside of working more hours and having less time for studying, students with lower economic standing can feel alienated from their peers. 

Joan Ostrove, psychology professor at Macalester University and author of "Social Class and Belonging: Implications for College Adjustment," has watched some of her students struggle with feeling alienated due to social class differences. 

One of Ostrove’s students who was from a poor family felt very alienated and disturbed by the classism they experienced at an elite liberal arts college. The student didn’t feel understood or like anyone found their experiences and values meaningful.

“The student was super talented and hard working but sometimes, because they were so alienated and disconnected as a function of social class stuff — didn’t always get grades that reflected their brilliance,” Ostrove said. “The student ended up taking some semesters away, and wasn’t even sure they would come back to the school where I teach, but they did come back and actually ended up graduating.”

Ostrove said that student’s experiences of oppression and social identities can shape students differently and then affect their ability to “fit” into the image of what students are supposed to be like. 

“From my perspective, that’s what we really need to disrupt — the idea [of] this kind of paradigmatic student who is assumed to have a particular kind of experience and a particular kind of skill set coming into college,” Ostrove said.

Ostrove said that college should work on valuing and providing opportunities for students with different backgrounds.

Some may argue that college’s student employment centers provide plenty of employment opportunities for students that will easily work around their schedule. However, the root of the issue is the high cost of college.

Lana Winborn, graduate student and instructor of composition at Western, said that she found work through the student employment center when she was an undergraduate. 

“That being said, students shouldn't have to work long hours, multiple jobs and take out loans to attend college,” Winborn said. “The issue here are the absurd prices of colleges that leave students to stress about finances from rent to groceries.”

Others may argue that as long as students are able to complete their school work then it isn’t an issue.

However, there are so many factors that students can miss out on because of working full time in college other than time to study. 

Seth Smith, a junior in political science at Ohio State University, said that the biggest thing he has noticed about working while in college is that it is difficult to also have a social life.

“Especially working in the restaurant industry where weekend nights are when you make your money, a lot of times I find myself having to choose between hanging out with friends or doing campus activities like sporting events, or making money,” Smith said. “A lot of times it can feel like I’m missing out on creating those stereotypical college memories with my friends because I am stuck at work until past midnight.”

College should become more affordable, but until then, universities need to support their low-income students and be understanding of how much they are balancing. Schools should recognize how hard students are working to balance a full-time job while in college.

Read about how students are also marginalized by their identity in higher-education here.

Sophia Heit is an opinions writer for The Front and a third-year news/editorial journalism major. Her work focuses on local news while highlighting strong opinions within the community. You can contact Sophia at sophiaheit.thefront@gmail.com.


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