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Justin Westdyke
EDUC 318
Professor Fruja
Research Paper Draft
21 November 2013
Assimilation and Career Expectations of Working-class Students Attending a Liberal Arts
What do you want to be when you grow up? This is a timeless question that so many of
us consider or are asked as children growing up. The younger we are, the more idealistic the
response. As we age and experience the world around us, though, we start to tailor our dreams,
aspirations, and career goals to ideas that we deem as more feasible than others, based on our
primary interests. The American public education system pushes for academic tracking, which
can be seen as early as elementary school, with various gifted programs that exist across the
nation. The principles of social reproduction also suggest that furthermore, as a student enters
high school, this tracking will be even more dependent on their current familial social ranking.
Research from Kenneth Oldfield's 2012 study, Still Humble and Hopeful: Two more
recommendations on welcoming first-generation poor and working-class students to college,
suggests that working-class students will be pushed by various external (and even internal)
pressures to pursue a working-class career, while middle- and upper-class students will be
encouraged to strive for a life that is the product of academia. This leads to some extremely
interesting complications for working-class students who do decide to pursue a career strategy
which takes them through college. More specifically, looking at working-class students attending
private liberal arts universities, some major differences can be seen among the experiences they
have in comparison to middle- and upper-class students in the same scenario both inwardly and
outwardly. Some of the most apparent disparities seen among working-class students and
middle- and upper class students at private universities are that working-class students

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experience a major difference in how well they assimilate to the culture of an exclusive, private
university, and in their consideration (or many times, lack thereof) of their own post-college
goals and aspirations; the struggles with each of these concepts are facilitated by a lack of
understanding of cultural incompatibility on the university's end paired with a general
discrepancy in basic values.
The typical private liberal arts university is still a reasonably exclusive culture in
America. While increasing access to financial aid and state-offered grants for students from lowincome families has helped to extend accessibility, this does little in terms of ensuring that
working-class students have the same opportunities for success while attending these schools.
The general college culture is dominated by the upper-middle class and is therefore largely
controlled by the upper-middle class. This upper-class administrative domination leads to a large
nonrecognition of the working-class student population. A study conducted by Jim Schnell on the
differences between his personal experiences teaching at a large public school in comparison
with a small private liberal arts institution suggests that the working-class student is largely
unexamined by professors or administrative members.
The smaller student body provides a framework for a more cohesive
college community. The sense of familiarity benefits the classroom and the social
atmosphere of the campus. Classroom cohesiveness rarely needs to be built, it can
generally be assumed. This enhances student responsibility for their behavior
(attendance, participation, quality of work, and dedication to group membership
during group assignments).
While this quote is directed more towards the difference between smaller private schools
and larger public schools, the difference that Schnell is suggesting can shed some light as

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to how and why working-class students' needs often go unrecognized and overlooked.
Many professors and administrative members tend to assume that, at a private liberal arts
institution, all of the students fit cohesively into their college community and atmosphere.
This produces a large amount of dissonance for working-class students attending college,
for a multitude of reasons. Research form Rubin, M. and Warnock, D. and Appel, S. suggest that
working-class students experience difficulties in academic and social integration when they come
to college and then furthermore throughout their college experiences. These reasons, however,
are not always readily apparent on the surface. For some students, they rarely even express
themselves. DiMaria, F. (2006), claims that this deals largely with the invisibility of the workingclass student and the issues and challenges they face at a private liberal arts institution of higherlearning. This seems to be another result of the clash of cultures a working-class student
experiences when they enter an upper-middle class-dominated institution. There is a sense of
cultural incompatibility that forces the working-class student to adapt, or at least feign that they
are well-adapted to the college environment which surrounds them.
These primary discrepancies lead to many complications among the mindset of a
working-class student in the liberal arts setting that influence and permeate every aspect of their
livessocial and academic. The first, and probably most noteworthy, deals with that of
assimilation to a liberal arts school's culture. There is an immense body of qualitative research
that suggests that working-class students consistently experience setbacks when it comes to
cultural assimilation within the context of their respective college institutions (Oldfield, 2007;
Warnock et al., 2012; Stuber, 2011; Rubin, 2012; DiMaria, 2006; Greenbank et al., 2008). Most
important to a students personal health while attending school is that of their social assimilation.
More specifically, social assimilation refers to how well a college student can blend in with the

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peers around them without having to compromise their own values or ideals. The second half of
this definition is important to understanding the issue this paper is examining, because there is
research that suggests some working-class college students don't find it particularly difficult to fit
in, however, there is a price that must be paid.
A study conducted by Jenny Marie Stuber in 2009 looking at working-class firstgeneration college students revealed some interesting findings relating to the idea of cultural and
social assimilation were seen. Stuber studied the innately interesting fact that many workingclass students are persistent in their attendance of college, despite the fact that, according to her
study, about half of the working-class students she interviewed reported feeling noteworthy
marginality at their schools based on their cultural capital. Stubers study consisted of
comprehensive interviews with 28 White working-class college students. Cultural capital, as
defined by Kenneth Oldfield is [T]he knowledge, skills, education, and other advantages a
person has that make the educational system a comfortable, familiar environment in which he or
she can succeed easily (Oldfield, pp. 2, 2007). These are any of the advantages a student from a
middle- or upper-class background might experience based solely on the fact that their
socioeconomic status is higher and more developed than that of a working-class students'. In
reference to cultural capital, Stuber notes,
Because it is the dominant classes which define and monopolize
valuable forms of cultural capital, working-class students often arrive at
colleges and universities at a disadvantage. As such, they may experience
feelings of alienation and anxiety, making it difficult or even undesirable
for such students to become integrated into the collegiate context (Stuber,
pp. 118, 2009).

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Here Stuber suggests that assimilation for the working-class student is something that is not only
much more difficult, but is also something that is possibly not even wanted. This leads us to ask
the following question: what is it, exactly, about working-class culture that leads these students
to resist middle and upper-class culture while they are at college? A lack of cultural capital is
viewed not necessarily as a deficit by the working-class student, but possibly as a source of
pride. The study suggests that, acceptance of the dominant culture's values is what will ultimately
lead to upward social mobility. What is stopping working-class students, then, from breaking out
of the social class groups they are born into?
A mixed-methods study done by Warnock and Appel in 2012 also sheds some further
light into the harsh realities of the difficulties that exist in terms of assimilation for the workingclass student, and suggests an answer to the subsequent question. The issue may not be so much
that working-class students don't want to assimilate and conform to middle- and upper-class
university culture, but more so that working-class students do not know how and do not view it
as a plausible feat for them to accomplish. A lower class, white female reported, 'I dont have
the social capital necessary to fully integrateI often find myself unable to access social groups
and specialized knowledge without support from gatekeepers'(Warnock and Appel, pp. 318,
2012). Here, the student references the idea of social capital, which refers to an individual's
access to social networking and how it helps to boost or hinder their social mobility. From the
perspective of this working-class student, members of the middle- and upper-class obtain some
sort of specialized key of knowledge, which is necessary to be a part of the group. Not knowing
somebody from this group therefore makes it largely impossible to achieve worthy entrance. And
even then, entrance does not mean that acceptance into this culture will automatically occur. The
working-class student, then, does not necessarily believe that one of the main purposes of college

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is to network and build their social prowess strategically to support their potential career
This produces some very interesting issues for working-class students regarding their
interpretation of their explanations for the purpose of college; and leads to one that is very
limited and narrow in terms of its realistic applicability.. One major part of assimilation is
understanding some of the same concepts that your surrounding peers have been brought up to
believe in. Understanding college as more than just a place to acquire a specific set of career
skills is something that working-class students often seem to miss. Interpreting the purpose of a
liberal arts university to be the same as that of a trade or vocational school leads to an important
distinction in the ways students from different socioeconomic statuses approach the schooling
process. Researcher Kenneth Oldfield discusses this issue on a very personal level in his
research. In the paper, Oldfield discusses some of the most important rules or codes he says
he wished he had known when he attended college as a working-class student himself. As
Oldfield explains it, I finally saw why they valued knowledge for its own sake... In such a
world, higher education served not as an opportunity to better ones economic chances but rather
as a socially accepted way to explore new interests (Oldfield, pp. 5, 2007). Here, Oldfield
speaks quite directly to the discrepancy in understanding that often seems to exist in how
working-class students and then middle- and upper-class students interpret the purpose of a
college education. This basic lack of understanding could potentially contribute to the workingclass students lack of willingness to compromise their cultural identities in order to assimilate
and conform to the middle-class dominant ideologies that surround them so prevalently.
Preserving this cultural identity is a feat that most people take for granted. Those whose
cultural identities fall in line conveniently with the identities of the dominant class do not need to

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worry about compromising their own personal identifiers in order to succeed in the world. For
those who differ, however, some form of compromise, flex, or budging is absolutely essential.
Prudence Carter, author of Keeping it Real: School success beyond black and white, provides
some valuable insight into the complications of what happens when cultural identities need to be
compromised. While her arguments tend to take point in the discrepancies that exist between
Black and White students, they can most certainly be applied to other issues, such as
socioeconomic status. Carter introduces the idea that dominant and non-dominant societal groups
exist. She speaks primarily towards issues of race; however, issues of financial status are still
valid: middle- and upper-class students belong to the dominant group, while working-class
students ascribe to the non-dominant group. This categorical placement trails back to the fact that
working-class students (those of the non-dominant group), lack some extremely crucial cultural
capital that would otherwise inherently allow them to be placed into the dominant group.
According to Carter, this would then leave the working-class with three options: 1)
conform to the middle- and upper-class culture; 2) resist the culture; 3) attempt to find some sort
of acceptable balance between the two. Carter refers to each of these three options as cultural
mainstreamers, noncompliant believers, and cultural straddlers, respectively. In the context of
this discussion, it makes sense that many working-class students would feel pressured to become
noncompliant believers; to resist the dominant culture that they willingly placed themselves into.
One potential reason for this could be the difference that exists in what working-class
students define as most important and pertinent to their lives while they attend college. This in
turn serves to counteract any hope for assimilation for working-class students. Most of the
existing research suggests that this is the direct result of a different set of child rearing values that
tend to exist within a working-class context. This sort of stance is pushed for heavily by author

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Annette Lareau, in her text Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. According to
Lareau, socioeconomic status is often very closely related to how a child will be raised. Students
outside the realm of the working-class typically will ...[a]cquire a valuable set of white-collar
work skills, including how to set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and
work on a team (Lareau, pp. 39). Lareau's statements are backed up by a 20 year-long
continuous study involving students of various socioeconomic backgrounds whom she followed
closely at critical development stages of their lives.
There is also a large amount of intuitiveness involved in terms of how to interpret
Lareau's work in the context of the working-class student. For example, it makes sense that
working-class students would have other large commitments outside of school to focus on, such
as holding a job, or being consumed with financial issues that are seeded back among their
families at home. As a result, the general trend seems to follow that working-class students tend
to feel slightly more disadvantaged in comparison to their dominant middle- to upper-class peers.
A study done by D. M. Warnock and S. Appel in 2012 which looked specifically at
working-class graduate students confirmed this notion. While it looked at many other
experiences of working-class students, one of which it focused on in particular was how financial
supportor lack thereofinfluenced students' perceptions of how stressful or difficult their
educational goals were. Consistent with the rest of the data, they found that working-class
students viewed their financial struggles are reasonably disadvantageous, compared to their
middle- and upper-class peers who felt ahead of the game when it came to them not having to
worry as heavily about making money while at school to pay off undergraduate loans. Warnock
and Appel's study consisted of a quantitative survey aspect, which confirmed multiple points. In
particular, they confirmed that ...[w]orking and lower class students have taken out significantly

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more in dollar amounts for graduate school loans and expected to have taken out significantly
more in loans by the end of graduate school than their middle and upper class peers (Warnock
and Appel, pp. 318, 2012). This factually backs up the idea that working-class students have
some more financial issues that are realistically tangential to their college focus that are concerns
of theirs. Warnock and Appel go on to tell us that their results also showed that ...[working-class
students] expected the need to repay their loans to affect their career decisions more strongly
than did their middle and upper class peers who have loans (Warnock and Appel, pp. 318,
2012). This demonstrates how this increase in financial pressure truly does influence the career
goals and aspirations of working-class students attending a private liberal art institution. Having
more external pressures while attending school forces the working-class student to (sometimes
fallibly) adjust their career directions.
This sort of adjustment in career direction can often be very troubling for the workingclass student. The reason for this is because it is typical misdirected in light of the answer to:
What will get me the most money, in the shortest amount of time? Rather than considering
further schooling options, or idealistic career goals, the working-class student is often left
restricted to only considering more immediate, financially stable options that might be available
to them immediately upon graduation.
These differences in future planning, social and academic assimilation, and personal drive
are all issues that can be ultimately traced back to the broader concepts of cultural
incompatibility and a difference in basic values. Cultural incompatibility is the basic idea that
cultural identities that do not align with the dominant culture will face difficulties in obtaining
some of the same capital that that culture possesses. Therefore, in the context of working-class
students attending a private liberal arts institution, their non-dominant socioeconomic status is

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incompatible with the middle- and upper-class socioeconomic statuses of the bulk of their peers.
What becomes even more problematic, is the fact that these issues often go overlooked by
university faculty and administrative members because they are not the most obvious and readily
apparent. Cultural incompatiblity is an issue that most universities either don't recognize in the
context of social class, or would rather prefer go intentionally unrecognized. Frank DiMaria, an
associate professor from Skidmore College claims that one reasons many schools overlook or
ignore bringing attention to working-class students' struggles is because their financial issues are
the very issues that going to a university is supposed to innately solve. Because the
in the business of actually changing the class status of working-class individuals, it is not in a
position to celebrate their brand of difference (DiMaria, pp. 62, 2006). In this instance, it is not
in the university's best interest to claim Look at all the lower-class students that go here!
because most people would not as readily devote large sums of money and time for a university
that only maintains a working-class student's social capital.
Another hidden issue that arises with cultural incompatibility that a university
administration might not notice is that of the values that exist within the working-class cultural
capital. This idea has been expanded upon in the context of the individual student already, but
now is the time to examine it in the context of the clashing of cultures that occurs when a
working-class student enters a university setting. Many working-class students grow up
understanding that college is a waste of time, money, and energy. This obviously makes even
making the decision to attend college a very difficult and arduous one for a working-class high
schooler to make. Then, while at school, it only works to increase the dissonance working-class
students feel in terms of whether or not they belong where they have put themselves. College is
associated with empowerment, prestige, and upward mobility, making the working-class

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students' personal experience irrelevant (DiMaria, pp. 63, 2006). Here, DiMaria points out that
the working-class student does not have a place in the university where they fit in nicely. There is
no normal mold for them to naturally fulfill. Rather, something must be created or synthesized
on their own parts in order to succeed at a university as well as later in life when pursuing a
career more directly.
It becomes apparent, then, that one of the most important tools a university can provide
working-class students with is a gatekeeper, or faculty mentor. To reiterate the ideas of Carter,
what working-class students need are multicultural navigators. Carter explains that multicultural
navigators are those who have mastered the art of transgressing cultural boundaries, all while
maintaining their own personal identities in the process. They are expert cultural straddlers. In
the context of working-class students attending a private university, multicultural navigators
would be faculty and administrative advisers who could help to guide working-class students
throughout their college experiences. They would serve as people to help these students
understand how to get the most out of their college experience; that there is more to gain from
attending college than hoping to be employed immediately afterward. Advisers such as this
would help to give working-class students somebody to relate to, and would furthermore show
them that upward mobility is possible, with the right tools and the right knowledge. Realistically,
the only people who obtain this knowledge are those who have prevailed: the multicultural
When the values and tools of working-class students and their middle- and upper-class
peers misalign, obvious issues can arise. While it is absolutely proven and certain that workingclass student experience enhanced difficulties when it comes to assimilating into the private
liberal arts culture, we also know that this impacts their perceptions of college and their future

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goals and career aspirations. This lack of the proper values and tools can be related to the
shortcomings of cultural and social capital that so many scholars speak of when discussions of
social reproduction come about. By entering school with innate disadvantages, working-class
students struggle with understanding why it is they are at college, and therefore have further
issues in learning and understanding what exactly is necessary to break the barriers of their
current social class. Until private liberal arts universities get a better grasp on the influences
cultural incompatibility has upon working-class students' experience while at college and their
post-college goals and aspirations, these issues will continue to prevail beneath the surface,
unrecognized, unnoticed, and unresolved.

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Carter, Prudence L. Keepin' It Real: School Success beyond Black and White. Oxford: Oxford
UP, 2005. Print.
DiMaria, F. (2006). Working-class students: Lost in a college's middle-class culture. Education
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Greenbank, P., & Hepworth, S. (2008). Improving the career decision-making behaviour of
working class students. Journal of European Industrial Training, 32(7), 492-509.
Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. Berkeley: University of
California, 2003. Print.
Oldfield, K. (2007). Humble and hopeful: Welcoming first-generation poor and working-class
students to college. About Campus, 11(6), 2-12. Retrieved from
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Higher Education, 5(1), 22-38. Retrieved from
Stuber, J. M. (2011). Integrated, marginal, and resilient: Race, class, and the diverse experiences
of white first-generation college students. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in
Education (QSE), 24(1), 117-136. Retrieved from

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Warnock, D. M., & Appel, S. (2012). Learning the unwritten rules: Working class students in
graduate school. Innovative Higher Education, 37(4), 307-321. Retrieved from