When Michael Shott joined one of the most prestigious graduate archaeology programs in the United States, he was largely unprepared for what he would encounter. As a first-generation college student from a working-class background, educated at a state university, he didn’t know his way around the academic system. He struggled financially, making ends meet with contract work that severely delayed the completion of his Ph.D. and left a hole in his publication record. After he finished, he was unable to secure funding for archaeology research in faraway places, so he worked instead in unfashionable parts of North America.

Today, Shott chairs the Department of Anthropology and Classical Studies at the University of Akron, a public university in Ohio. Part of him is satisfied with how things turned out: He is happy to have had the opportunity to make an academic career in archaeology. But he regrets a series of ill-informed career decisions that he says denied him a place at more prestigious institutions. “I’ve done … a fair amount of interesting work that has been recognized by international scholars in my field … most of whom are at other kinds of universities than mine,” he says.

Shott initiated his academic journey more than 35 years ago, but even nowadays students from backgrounds similar to his face similar hardships as they pursue academic careers. “The obstacles are not explicit. They’re not in many cases deliberate,” Shott says. “It’s more a case of … not knowing the unwritten rules of where to work, who to work with, what kinds of things to work on,” he adds.

Rolling disadvantages

A rising number of research studies document how the odds are stacked against students and faculty from working-class backgrounds. First-generation college students, pupils from public (as opposed to elite private) high schools, and students from financially disadvantaged families are all underrepresented in the undergraduate population. According to a 2013 study released by the Sutton Trust, a charity in the United Kingdom that promotes social mobility through education, the disparity is particularly acute at top universities. In the United States, for example, working-class students are six times less likely to study at an elite private university than their more privileged peers.

This article ties in with Science's special issue on "The Science of Inequality."

At the postgraduate level, socioeconomic disparities grow more severe. According to the latest U.S. Survey of Earned Doctorates, the proportion of new Ph.D. graduates who come from families where neither parent has earned more than a high school degree has fallen from about 31% in 1992 to just under 20% in 2012, while the proportion of graduates from families with at least one parent with an advanced degree has climbed; it was about 33% in 1992, and it is now above 40%. An April 2013 report released by the U.K. Higher Education Academy reported lower rates of progression to Ph.D. studies for undergraduates coming from a state high school, or from a family with parents of low educational or professional attainment.

In a 2007 review of the accessibility of the Ph.D. and professoriate to first-generation college graduates, Kevin Kniffin, who today is doing a postdoc at Cornell University, traced growing socioeconomic disparities within academia all the way up to the professor level. “[D]isproportionately few first-generation college graduates who earn the PhD are employed as faculty members at national research universities,” Kniffin concluded.

While the issue has garnered less attention than the plight of women and ethnic minorities in academia, a few initiatives have been launched to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds enter higher education. The Federal TRIO programs in the United States offer support and fellowships to high school students with low-income and low-education family histories, helping them pursue a degree and a Ph.D. The National Institutes of Health’s Recruitment and Retention Plan to Enhance Diversity includes people from economically, socially, culturally, or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. In the United Kingdom, universities must now enter an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access, detailing the financial support they will offer low-income and other underrepresented students.

Money matters

Courtesy of Diane Reay
Diane Reay

The most obvious challenge for working-class students is a lack of financial resources. “Their families … aren’t able to give them allowances. They aren’t able to pay for things,” says Diane Reay, a professor of education at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who researches social class and access to higher education. “They have to worry about money at the same time as studying.”  

Even when financial support is available, working-class students may not even know about it. “I might have had a fairly strong prospect of a graduate fellowship, but I didn’t even know the program existed,” Shott recalls. In his Ph.D. cohort at the University of Michigan were a Harvard University-educated daughter of a U.S. ambassador, a Duke University-educated son of an airline executive, and two children of academics educated at Princeton University and Oberlin College—all with graduate fellowships. Shott made do with a meager income from the Federal Work-Study Program and earned money working in local preservation archaeology. “I spent nearly 3 years continuously … doing preservation or consulting work, not making much progress at all on my own research,” he says. It took him 8 years to finish his Ph.D.

Later in their careers, working-class scholars are often at a disadvantage because they can’t afford to take financial risks. Shott was confined to local archaeology, and also felt compelled to accept an offer from a regional state university, instead of holding out for a more prestigious offer.

Social and cultural capital

It isn’t just a lack of financial capital that puts many working-class students and faculty at a disadvantage; they lack social and cultural capital as well. They do not have the social connections that allow them to learn about a fellowship program or a job opening. They often feel they do not fit in academia because they entered lacking the cultural and social indoctrination that is part of their wealthier peers’ educations.

Working-class students typically have no one in their family or social environment who could share college or doctoral experiences, and often they have far fewer opportunities to develop the kind of eloquence, cultural knowledge, social skills, and self-confidence that are effective in academia's mainstream. “A lot of the privately educated students are incredibly articulate, and they are able to speak about their discipline … with what seems to be like supreme confidence,” Reay says, noting that it takes a while for working-class students “to recognize that supreme confidence isn’t the same as ability.”

Compounding the lack of adequate social and cultural capital is the fact that they have had to work so much harder than their peers to get to university in the first place. Once there, instead of building up their social capital, they continue to “concentrate very intensely on their work, … whereas often their upper or middle-class peers are involved in societies; they’re networking; they’re doing a whole range of things that actually support their career,” Reay says. Over time, with practice, working-class scholars can become more at ease in their new environment, but the feeling of being out-of-place can persist for the rest of their careers.

A cultural divide

Courtesy of Peter Mather
Peter Mather

An extra difficulty for working-class students and faculty is that they must learn to straddle two different worlds, says Peter Mather, an associate professor in counseling and higher education at Ohio University in Athens, who supervised a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject, Exploring the Pathways to the Professoriate Taken by First Generation College Students, written by James Lester. “There is often tension between the culture they came from and the majority culture at university. … It sometimes is a challenge just in terms of trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be in this new context,” Mather says.

On one side, working-class students often retain a very strong commitment to their families and friends back home, and “they almost have to leave their academic persona behind in order to fit in at home,” Reay says. “Often, their families are incredibly proud of them, but they don’t understand about their academic work and what it entails.” Privately educated students can talk about their work and get a lot of support and interest from their families, she adds.

On the other side, there is a lot of pressure in society, and especially in academia, for working-class people to shed their old selves. Barbara Jensen, a practicing psychologist and independent scholar in Minneapolis, Minnesota, says that working-class students and faculty are often exposed to prejudices, albeit unconscious ones. In academic circles, only their new, ‘better’ selves are valued. “You are heading towards what’s considered to be the best place you could be … but there is nothing that values where you came from,” Jensen says. “There are many really, really positive things in spite of material hardship that go along with being from the so-called lower classes, and you are asked to give up all that.”

Courtesy of Barbara Jensen
Barbara Jensen

Among the things they are being asked to give up are deeply held beliefs and values. While the social environment they grew up in may have promoted community, cooperation, and humility, in academia they encounter a highly individual and cutthroat culture where one strives to be the best, Jensen says. This, “for the upwardly mobile student, creates a fair amount of cognitive dissonance”—which, Jensen adds, prompts some students to drop out of school. Substance abuse, too, is a risk. If they stay in school, they may develop major depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

The solution to the dissonance, Jensen says, is to understand the values and learn the language and skills of your new world but still retain your values. “Of course you have to end up with some mix of the both, but in a way that’s the best of all worlds.”

“I think students can make those adjustments just fine if they’re given some guidance—if they’re told, ‘OK, you’re entering into a different culture,’” Jensen says. Another way students can help themselves is by creating a community of peers, she adds. Since 2007, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has offered a working-class student union that organizes events. The career services office at Syracuse University has been organizing talks and networking events for Ph.D. students and faculty from working-class or low-educational backgrounds since 2012.

But perhaps the most useful advice is to find a good mentor. In his dissertation research, Lester found that the emotional support of a mentor was paramount.

Inner strength

First-generation and working-class students and faculty often do not realize that they possess a set of attributes that can help them all the way up the academic ladder. The most powerful advantage for students from working-class backgrounds is the resilience and “enormous fortitude” they have already demonstrated in getting where they are, says Reay, whose Ph.D. students come mostly from working-class backgrounds. They possess grit, determination, and “undeniable mental/emotional resolve in the face of considerable challenge,” Lester concluded in his dissertation. “They have a broader worldview,” Reay adds, and “have had to be very independent, resourceful learners.” Finally, Reay continues, most working-class students possess a love of learning and passion for their work that not many of their more privileged peers share.

“You have so much to offer because of your worldly wisdom,” Jensen says. “And the other skill set you can learn, but don’t let anybody tell you that you don’t have what it takes, because you have a wealth of experience that many of your colleagues will never have.”

Top Image: Michael Shott. Courtesy of Michael Shott

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.