Sunday, March 18, 2012

Socio-economic Status and Undergraduate Success

This week in our GTC workshop we discussed how socio-economic status (SES) impacts
undergraduate success. SES is based on the income, education, and occupation of an
individual or family and can be divided into 3 classes: low, middle, and high.

Why we should care (impacts on society and educators):

• strong predictor of range of physical and mental health problems
• can contribute to increased crime rates and violence
• can lead to problems in classroom: disengagement, under achievement, lower cognitive function, lower ability to reason and/or remember

Middle/High SES
• more successful in school, learn more quickly
• more prepared for success in school/career
• become leaders/hold influential roles as adults

SES has impacts on students at grade-school level (as presented by Lareau’s Concertive Cultivation (CC) vs. Natural Growth (NG) Theory):
CC, Middle/High SES:
• Active involvement of parents in a child’s learning and developmental experiences by
creating and controlling organized activities for their children.
• Parents promote critical thinking such as asking challenging questions, use of advanced
vocabulary and grammar, strong family support structure
• Fosters a sense of educational entitlement in students, but children are less independent

NG, Low SES:
• Less structure and organized activities
• More free time to play with children in neighborhood
• Children end up lacking some necessary life skills, but become more independent at a
younger age

SES can shape social stratification in education. Schools expect parents to practice actions associated with CC (Middle SES), so lower classes often feel distance, distrust, and constraint in educational institutions. Collins’ Credentialism Theory describes public schools as socializing institutions that teach and reward middle class values of competition and achievement. Prestigious/Private Schools train students to hold positions of power. This shapes social stratification in education. The elite classes exposure to a specific educational background promotes a monopoly over positions of power while others acquire the credentials to compete in subordinate job market and economy. This leads to schools of higher education (medicine, law, elite institutions) remaining relatively closed to the members of lowest classes

How does all of this affect college students? Low SES students are statistically less likely to persist in 4-year colleges or attend graduate school. Other problems found for low SES students in 4-year colleges include: lower aspirations, personal expectations, self-confidence, and involvement in student activities; lower levels of income after college; and lower Ph.D. completion rates.

There are many factors that come into play regarding SES in addition to the financial side. Demographic characteristics such as socioeconomic status influence prior academic preparation, pursuing steps to post-secondary enrollment and admission, enrollment, and degree completion. The availability and type of financial aid significantly affects students’ college attendance and persistence. Lower SES families have less time to provide their children with support.Family education background is related to students’ higher post-secondary aspirations and greater likelihood of enrollment, persistence, and attainment. Approximately 1 in 3 college
students come from families where neither parent went on to college (National Survey of
Student Engagement (NSSE) 2005). Family and Peer support foreshadows student success. Parental expectations have been found to be the strongest predictor for attending college among white 8th graders in low income schools (Hamrick & Stage, 2004).

The quality of high school academic preparation strongly predicts chances for post-secondary success, measured by enrollment, persistence, grades, and educational attainment. Low income schools often have fewer resources, less qualified teachers, etc. These characteristics demonstrate the complex ways that student background characteristics and pre-college experiences interact to influence student success.

Understanding what the factors are and how they work together provide information that
various groups can use to help better prepare students for collegiate and post-collegiate
success. This can be particularly important for first generation college students. First-generation students tend to be less engaged than other students, perhaps in part because they know less about the importance of engagement or how to get involved in productive activities (Pike and Kuh, 2005). They have less tacit knowledge of and fewer experiences with college campuses and related activities, behaviors, and role models compared with second-generation college students.
In addition, parents are unable to help much, even if they are inclined as they, too, lack knowledge of, origin some instances may find off-putting, certain activities that could lead to
greater levels of engagement (Kenny and Stryker 1996; London 1992).

Many of the characteristics that affect students’ ability to go to and stay in college are out of
our control as instructors and TAs. We can’t change their SES, their family background, etc.
However, one aspect that we can affect is their understanding of the culture of college. How
to interact with faculty, how to make their way through their years in school. What they lack,
if they are first generation students is likely a mentor or role model who can show them the

What we are referring to is a basic understanding of college etiquette and not just raise your
hand, or don’t talk on your phone during class. Mentoring undergraduates is something that doesn’t really get that much attention, even some of the programs out there that are designed to do this don’t actually follow through with it. We even have a program on campus that sounds like it addresses these concerns, but in fact does nothing to help undergraduates with this issue.

We do have the ICC which can give tons of info to students about etiquette in interviews,
business dinners, etc. But there isn’t much focus on how to get through the 4, 5, 6 years that
you may be spending in your undergraduate years… a time when you should be beginning to
use and practice these skills in order to be ready for graduate school or the workplace.

Mentoring programs are generally focused on mentoring students to get into graduate school or for internships or for research projects. Something that I do in my classes, which has shown a great improvement in my students behaviors is to make them aware of the things that they do and say that are inappropriate. These can be thought of as the “pet peeves” we have all encountered during our time as teaching assistants or instructors. I spend time during the first class going over a few of these pet peeves to help them understand what is appropriate and what is not. I also bring them up throughout the quarter. When I do bring them up I make sure to explain to them what to do. Explaining that this will not only help them succeed in my class, but also in any of their classes.

For example:
o What to do and what not to do.
o How to interact appropriately with the TA, with the professor.
o How to get involved in labs or research projects.
o Appropriate ways to email, contact, and talk to the TA or professor.

Samples of Pet Peeves
o Inappropriate emails
o Addressing the professor (TA) inappropriately
o Not using full sentences or correct grammar
o Emailing a question about an exam or an assignment the night before it is due and
asking us to respond ASAP!
o Writing paragraph after paragraph in an email instead of coming into office hours.
o Emailing questions to the whole class, or to all the TAs
o Criticizing exam or assignment questions
o Waiting until the day of the final to ask questions about their previous exams/assignments
o Arguing or nitpicking about points on exams/assignments
o Not attending office hours
o Asking questions that are clearly answered in the syllabus or on the website.
o Complaining about having too much to work on in any given week…..forgetting that they
are complaining to graduate students who have far more projects/papers/grading and life
responsibilities of their own.

These are just a sample of “pet peeves” that can be addressed with your students. Most occur
because no one has ever told otherwise. But these are all issues that we can take upon ourselves
to help educate and inform students in an effort to change their ways. It can make your life much
more pleasant during the quarter too!


Hamrick, F. A., & Stage, F. K. (2004). College predisposition at high-minority enrollment,
low- income schools. The Review of Higher Education, 27(2), 151-168.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J. A., Bridges, B. K., & Hayek, J. C. (July, 2006). What matters
to student success: A review of the literature. National Postsecondary Education

National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) (2005). Student engagement: Exploring
different dimensions of student engagement. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University
Center for Postsecondary Research.

Pike, G. R., and Kuh, G. D. (2005b). First- and second-generation college students: A
comparison of their engagement and intellectual development. Journal of Higher
Education, 76(3), 276-300.

Walpole, M. (2003). Socioeconomic status and college: How SES affects college experiences
and outcomes. The Review of Higher Education, 27(1), 45-73.

In-class exercise: Understanding Social Class Hierarchy (masked as a warm-up exercise: http://

Other resources:
(a) Bringing awareness to our students using strategies to facilitate and strengthen cognitive
function (Habits of Mind by Art Costa:;
(b) How Sociological factors affect behavior:
info_10010354_sociological-factors-affect-persons-behavior.html; (c) How SES affects
college students:; (d) http:/
/; (e)
peoplelikeus/stories/index.html; (f) Differences in learning styles of low socioeconomic status
for low and high achievers by Ganel P. Caldwell and Dean W. Ginthier

Courtesy of:
Kim Pasene
Nafeesa Mahmood

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