Social Class and College Readiness


The content below, by Patrick Sullivan, is related to his article "An Open Letter to Ninth Graders." 

Much of what I outline in this letter to first-year high school students would probably not need to be spelled out (or at least not spelled out in the detail I have provided here) for students with college-educated parents or for students from affluent or middle-class families. Students who come from poor or working-class families or who will be the first in their families to attend college, however, are likely to need this kind of advice and guidance.

For example, when I recently spoke with seventy-five seniors from a working-class high school in our service district, I found that many of the students were quite surprised to learn that they might be expected to “enjoy reading” or that students who are ready for college “read for pleasure.” Many of these students will be the first in their families to attend college.

Some of these differences in college readiness can be attributed to social class and some to articulation problems between high schools and colleges that our profession has just recently begun to address. Economist Richard Rothstein, for example, has shown us in his indispensable 2004 book, Class and Schools, that “social class characteristics in a stratified society like ours” influence student learning in all sorts of subtle and profound ways.

We know that social class plays a crucial, long-term role even in how young children think about their academic futures. As education theorists David Ellwood and Thomas Kane note in their article “Who Is Getting a College Education?” “If children from poorer families believe they are unlikely to go to [college] (because of financial constraints), they do not work as hard in school and achieve lower scores and grades, further obscuring the true impact of family income.”

Socially inscribed, class-based parenting styles also appear to play a role, as sociologist Annette Lareau shows in her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Class-based philosophies and approaches to child rearing “appear to lead to the transmission of differential advantages to children” and have a significant impact on a child’s longterm educational prospects.

Furthermore, first-generation college students are often unfamiliar with college, which also contributes to lack of readiness. And first-generation students are a significant cohort nationwide: approximately 34 percent of students attending community colleges, for example, are first-generation college students.

First-generation students obviously cannot rely on parents for the kind of guidance and support that college-educated parents provide to their children. This guidance becomes particularly crucial as students make the transition from high school to college. We do not have a way to calculate accurately the value of such parental advice and guidance—or a way truly to understand how puzzling college can seem to students who are unfamiliar with it.
Many of my first-generation college students, for example, do not know what a syllabus is or what office hours are. They are also often unfamiliar with withdrawal policies and other aspects of the college environment that second- or third-generation college students appear to understand instinctively.

Finally, as I note in my letter, it seems clear that a gap exists between the skills students are typically bringing to college and the skills that college teachers like me think students should be bringing with them. Many organizations and advocacy groups have drawn attention to this “expectations gap.”

College readiness emerged as a key issue at the Spellings Commission’s Regional Summit Conference for Higher Education in Boston in summer 2007. As conversations at that meeting made clear, confusion about what it means to be “ready for college” is not limited to first-generation college students or to students who come from poor or working-class families. It affects students at institutions across the entire spectrum of higher education—from the humblest open-admissions institutions to the most selective universities.

The phrase “ready for college” is a shorthand expression that we use to refer to a wide variety of sophisticated and interrelated skills that often take a lifetime to build. We expect students to be accomplished in all sorts of ways when they come to college, especially in terms of reading, writing, and thinking.

It seems to me, though, that dispositional characteristics like passion, perseverance, emotional maturity, and self-discipline might be the most important of all.