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Stratified Learning: Responding to the Class System of Higher Education

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A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a middle-aged man in a business suit flapping his arms and hovering several feet in the air, while a similarly dressed colleague looks on and comments, "Interesting, but we can never forget that you went to a state college.


The posting below looks at the differences among various types of four-year institutions in the United States. It is from the article Stratified Learning: Responding to the Class System of Higher Education, by Sherry Lee Linkon, professor of English and American Studies and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University. It appeared in Diversity & Democracy, Volume 11,, Number 3, (2008), published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Copyright © 2008, AACU. Reprinted with permission

Rick Reis

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Stratified Learning: Responding to the Class System of Higher Education


A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a middle-aged man in a business suit flapping his arms and hovering several feet in the air, while a similarly dressed colleague looks on and comments, "Interesting, but we can never forget that you went to a state college." Perhaps because I teach at a state college, that cartoon made me laugh even as it made me angry. I got angry, too, when my parents brushed aside my suggestion that my saxophone-virtuoso nephew apply to Youngstown State University (YSU) because we have a great jazz program and he could have received a full scholarship. He went to Northwestern instead. Although I come from an upper-middle-class background, after studying class in education for more than a decade, I have a working-class chip on my shoulder.

Higher education in America is stratified in ways that reflect and perpetuate the social hierarchies of American society. This isn't just a matter of status; it's a matter of material conditions. Funding and connections buy elite schools (most private four-year and research institutions, and some highly selective and well-funded public universities) the resources (and time) upon which to build prestige. Meanwhile, at working-class institutions (most public universities and all community colleges), low status correlates with insufficient funding and facilities. Those differences affect the experiences and opportunities of students as well as faculty. But before we can consider how to respond to this class hierarchy, we need to understand how it operates.

Why Status Matters

Like working-class people, working-class institutions are at once invisible and denigrated. Because they don't fit the standard image of college, working-class institutions-along with both faculty and students from these schools-experience significant marginalization.

In American public discourse, going to college means moving away from home, living in a dorm, spending evenings eating pizza with friends and studying. In reality, many college students, especially at working-class institutions, commute to campus and struggle to balance a job and homework, let alone find time for pizza. Media reports tell us that the college admissions process is putting increasing pressure on high school students, few of whom gain entrance to their preferred school. Yet more than 25 percent of four-year institutions accept 75 to 90 percent of applicants, and 17 percent of schools have no admissions criteria at all (Almanac of Higher Education). While selectivity is one criterion for elite status, working-class institutions pride themselves on another goal: providing access to students for whom college might otherwise be impossible.

Because they don't fit the image of college, working-class institutions are widely seen as second-rate schools that students attend because they have to, not because they want to. Students joke that YSU can also mean "You Screwed Up." That image sticks, even though the university has many strong programs and its faculty and students have won prestigious national awards, grants, and recognition.

These status differences are part of a self-perpetuating system for both faculty and students. For faculty, professional prestige is based largely on where one works and where one is trained. Institutional prestige facilitates access to grants, awards, and jobs, and these in turn contribute to the status of both the individual professor and his or her university. For students, institutional status influences opportunities in the job market and in graduate school admissions.

Real Differences

The class system of higher education creates real differences in resources and working conditions for both faculty and students. Elite schools generally have larger endowments and a stronger pool of potential donors, so they can provide high-quality facilities, well-stocked libraries, up-to-date technology, and other conditions that facilitate teaching and learning. In contrast, publicly funded schools, especially regional campuses and community colleges, almost never have enough money. Their faculty and students frequently work in run-down buildings and lack access to technology, materials, and staff support. On my campus, for example, science faculty regularly see their research disrupted when pieces of the ceiling fall on their labs and desks.

Workloads also differ. At working-class institutions, many faculty teach four or more sections per term, including large classes. They are likely to serve on many committees, advise dozens of students, and have relatively limited clerical or graduate assistant help. At most elite schools, faculty members teach smaller and fewer classes, and they often have teaching assistants to help with grading and preparing class materials. They may also have lighter committee and advising loads, lots of clerical support, and a couple of days each week to work on research.

Students also work harder at working-class schools, in part because many come from working-class backgrounds. Students at working-class institutions often work thirty-five or more hours per week, commute long distances between home and campus, and have family responsibilities that make completing assignments difficult. A report by the American Council on Education reports that, not surprisingly, students with lower household incomes work more than wealthier students (American Council on Education 2006). These students work hard to get all they can from their education. But the decks are stacked against them.

Differences of resources, working conditions, and status translate into different opportunities. Education is widely seen as the ticket to upward mobility, but the value of the degree rests in part on the class of the institution. A ticket from an elite school admits a graduate to better jobs and graduate programs, while tickets from working-class institutions too often get students only one rung up the class ladder, if that. Thus, while more students than ever are attending college, more people are not moving into the middle class (Scott and Leonhardt 2005).

How We Can Respond

The class system of higher education serves the interests of those who benefit from elite educations, and that makes changing the system difficult. So if we can't change the system, how should we respond?

First, faculty and graduates of working-class institutions must resist internalizing the idea that our work and education are not good enough. We and our allies should brag about what community colleges and regional state schools offer: dedicated faculty who care about teaching and about their students, programs that help students succeed despite their busy lives and often inadequate preparation, and university communities that value the culture and experiences of working-class students.

Second, we should advocate for state and federal funding formulas that will increase access for lower-income students and reward schools that successfully address their needs. This means rethinking state funding formulas that reward universities based on research-oriented criteria that have little to do with the quality of student learning. It also means advocating for more financial aid so students can work fewer hours or afford to live on campus. And it means paying attention to the student loan crisis. In May 2008, several banks announced that they would no longer lend money to students attending community colleges, reducing access for the more than 6.8 million students who attend these schools (Almanac of Higher Education). We should fight back.

We can fight best when we fight together. In 2007, the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM) developed its own "Plan for UMass," advocating for more funding and better access to higher education ( By bringing together representatives from the multiple UMass campuses, including faculty, staff, and students, PHENOM made its ideas visible and put pressure on state leaders. PHENOM activists enacted the last words of early twentieth-century labor organizer Joe Hill: "Don't waste any time mourning. Organize."


Almanac of Higher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education online. (accessed June 12, 2008).

American Council on Education. 2006. Working their way through college: Student employment and its impact on the college experience.

template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentFileID=1618 (accessed June 12, 2008).

Linkon, S. L., Ed. 1999. Teaching working class. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Scott, J., and D. Leonhardt. 2005. Shadowy lines that still divide. New York Times, May 15. in+america+series&st=nyt (accessed June 12, 2008).

Shor, I. 1980 (1987). Critical teaching and everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at