Class Privilege 101

College forces middle-class culture onto students. Former poor-kid-in-college Rita Rathbone says that’s a problem.

By Rita Rathbone
I was really intrigued by the recent discussion about college and disadvantaged students. Research is showing us that those who come from poverty still earn less in their lifetime, even with a college degree, than those from more affluent backgrounds. And those are the students who actually finish.  Far too many low-income students rack up large amounts of debt, but fail to graduate. In the long run, they are worse off. These are profoundly important facts to inform our discussions around education policy. This matters to me because I am a public school teacher and education scholar. It matters even more to me because I once was a poor kid in college.

I was born and raised in Southern Appalachia in one of the many lingering pockets of extreme rural poverty in America. Not only was my family and most of my community impoverished, we were culturally and physically isolated. Violence and alcoholism were common fixtures. My mother was a product of the foster care system, my father struggled with an undiagnosed learning disability, and I had a special needs sibling. I graduated in the top 5% of my class with a 4.65 GPA despite working 35-40 hours per week, starting the week of my 16th birthday. I was a first generation college student. I am sure I would have been a dream come true for an Ivy League admissions officer in search of a scholarship recipient. I didn’t apply to any Ivy League schools, though. I attended the closest public university to me, 30 miles away. And I only did that instead of going to the local community college because I was offered a scholarship to become a teacher, something that I was passionate about.

I also tried to quit three separate times. By quit, I mean car-packed-up-and-driving-away-in-the-middle-of-the-semester quit. This would have been a disaster for me as the largest chunk of my full financial aid package was a scholarship loan that had to be paid back with my service as a teacher—or in cash with interest. Quitting college would have left me in significant debt. My advisor came and got me each of the three times and convinced me to come back, and talked me down at least one more time before I made it to the car. Why did I want to leave? Why was college so difficult for me? It wasn’t academics; I maintained a 4.0. The problem for me was culture shock. Specifically, I had been thrown into the deep end of unacknowledged middle-class norms and values.

The problem for me was culture shock. Specifically, I had been thrown into the deep end of unacknowledged middle-class norms and values.

For example, the polite but formal, pleasant but distant *professional* approach that many of my professors took to student interaction seemed cold, impersonal, heartless, and utterly foreign to me. I had no model to work from. Where I came from, exceeding politeness and formality was a sign of disrespect and distrust. Those of us from a working-class culture have a level of comfort with expressions of emotions and even anger that can make middle class folks squirm. Even today, the idea of compartmentalizing *personal* and *professional* is remains utterly foreign to me. It’s probably clear by now that my early interactions with professors didn’t go smoothly. Like the time I called one of my professors to tell her I would be missing class due to a death in the family. She couldn’t comprehend how the sudden passing of my fiancé’s grandfather justified missing multiple days of classes. To her, that was irresponsible. I couldn’t comprehend how I could offend my future in-laws by not being with them during that time. To me, that was irresponsible.

We have very strange habit in this country of pretending that class differences (and the profound cultural difference that come with them) don’t exist. In education, we discuss concerns that poor students are being approached from a *deficit model.* Which is a really polite way to say that middle-class folks assume their culture and value systems are superior to that of working class people.

Here’s a handy description of the differences taken from the work of Barbara Jensen, a scholar who has extensively research the culture of class in America:


Of course, this is a neutral depiction. It is easy to see how value judgments can be made from each position. From my perspective as a young college student, middle-class culture was selfish, greedy, disloyal, materialistic, opportunistic and shallow. Frankly, I still think that way to some extent. Why should we value individualism more than loyalty and commitment to a community? I have never been competitive or understood the value of being goal-oriented. How, exactly, does creating a goal in any way help you accomplish it? What is the point other than to establish an artificial sense of accomplishment by achieving some arbitrarily defined thing?

There are so many ways that K-12 education and especially higher education force middle-class culture onto all students. An excellent example is the fact that most colleges force students to live in the dorm for at least the first year. Numerous obstacles such as lack of public transportation and policies that prohibit cars on campus can make it difficult for students to get home for visits. In addition to rules and obstacles, there is often active discouragement or stigma placed on commuting from home or even making frequent visits. One of my high school students lost her only living parent in the February of her senior year, just two weeks after her 18th birthday. I helped get her off to college, but despite working our request way all the way up to the chancellor, she was forced to spend her first year in the dorm. This meant she was homeless during breaks, had to pay for storage for her belongings, and find new homes for her beloved pets. The only concession the school allowed was for her to be able to park her car on campus, of course with an added large parking fee.

Despite working our request way all the way up to the chancellor, she was forced to spend her first year in the dorm. This meant she was homeless during breaks, had to pay for storage for her belongings, and find new homes for her beloved pets. The only concession the school allowed was for her to be able to park her car on campus, of course with an added large parking fee.

The goal of policies such as this seems to be the development of independence, adulthood, and adult identity separate from family. These goals, of course, are pretty much the archetype of middle-class values. On the other hand, poor kids generally have already learned a lot of adult skills and independence. Forcing poor students away from the grounding that family and community provide and also exposing them to peer pressure from students who have far less to lose from unwise choices can lead to disaster. Adding insult to injury, many people advocate exactly for such policies since they get disadvantaged college students away from *negative influences* and *poor role models.* There was a 60% freshman dropout rate at my college when I attended. In trying to address this problem, the university assumed the reason was that students were bored in a rural location (especially those from down state), which was exacerbated by the fact that so many students went home every weekend. They desperately tried to solve the *suitcase problem* instead of more closely examining the reasons why students went home.

So, if we really believe in college opportunities for all and we really want poor students to succeed in college, then it is long past time to unpack and deconstruct the culture and value systems that are being privileged on campus—and in many K-12 schools as well—and reconsider policies that belittle and dismiss working-class cultural values.

Rita Rathbone is a lifelong resident of North Carolina. She is a teacher, magnet coordinator, and curriculum specialist in the Durham Public Schools in Durham, NC. Rita is obsessed with all things Lego and is, in her words, a damn fine cook. Follow her on Twitter at @patimpteach


  1. Thank you, Rita! Your experience both as a student and as a teacher rings so true!

    I worked for years with academically talented kids who were (like me) the first in their families to attend college. When they showed up to visit me in their former classroom, my concerns about their academic status was often dismissed with a wave of their hand – Dean’s List, no prob!

    What they really were stuck on was the question of fitting into a middle class culture that was foreign to their life experiences. Many of my students came from immigrant families and had spent their middle and high school years successfully straddling a line between their home culture and the wider American one. College opened up a new dividing line, and one which could be very isolating, even debilitating. It takes lots of “grit” and a helping hand to persist.

    1. Thank you Christine. Glad the blog resonated with you! You are exactly right, the constant messages bombarding kids like that they and their families and communities are inferior is draining.

  2. Thanks for this insightful post. As a teacher, the experience of my students is similar to yours. In Chicago Public Schools, acceptance into a 4 year college, as well as college persistence, are now factors in a high school’s Quality Rating. This is a disservice to everyone: students, their families, teachers, and the counselors tasked with advising them.

    Many students have little desire to go away to a 4 year college, and instead would rather pursue a trade or schooling at a 2 year college. Students are strongly discouraged by their counselors to do this. Still, I frequently suggest students attend a junior college until they have more solid direction.Typically, counselors win thanks to metrics they present from openly reform-based institutions like University of Chicago’s Network for College Success whose research falls along the lines of “only college, always college.” Thanks to some questionable metrics generated by their research, students are often “overmatched” and go to schools where success is challenging.

    This is all a very long-winded way of saying teachers continue to be damned either way. Suggest that students attend a junior college or trade-school and you are chastised for having low expectations, suggest students attend a four- year college and you’re unwittingly belittling students by foisting middle-class values on them.

    As an aside, it seems that nobody has simply one set of values or another, but that we operate using a mix of both to achieve our goals.

    1. I’ve heard this from my teacher friends in Chicago – and also that many of the guidance counselors who once would have helped students navigate this crazily complex landscape have been laid off… If only the “only college, always college” crowd was also talking about the level of debt students are being saddled with when they attend private four year schools (since the public universities we’ve disinvested from can’t give students who aren’t wealthy the aid they need)–and that’s if they finish. You might be interested in this podcast I just released about the various ways that college exacerbates poverty:

      And let me know if you’d ever be interested in writing something for this blog. I can tell you have a lot to say!

  3. Personally, I’m so grateful that you have shared your story! I’m 3rd generation survivor of capitalism.

  4. Large public universities operate on middle-class norms because these norms – including self-sufficiency, self-governance, discipline, and the drive to better oneself through education – are the practices that gave rise to institutions of formal education in the first place. While the author makes strong points about working-class and working-poor students’ warmth, friendliness, devotion to family, and bafflement with the crisp professional ethos of university professors, she fails to mention the qualities that hold many of these students back. As a high school teacher in an urban non-selective Title 1 school, I’ll have more sympathy for those who struggle with “middle-class values” when I see less indifference – and often outright distain – for academic curiosity and achievement in my classroom. Furthermore, pitting the working class against the middle class seems to be one more example of the us versus them victim mentality that’s currently leading us nowhere. Ruby Payne has published many excellent and “judgement-free” materials on the differences between class norms in the U.S. Unfortunately, her resources don’t make it into high school students’ hands. Perhaps a frank presentation of these differences is considered to be too hurtful.

    1. Let’s start with the biggest issue here, that you cite Ruby Paine and call her work “judgement free.” Her work is absolutely not judgement free (nor is it scholarly). Her approach is a deficit based approach. Here is a whole page full of criticisms of her work to help you see the issue. Please read a few and reconsider your view of her work.

      Now, let’s look at your comment. You just implied that working class and poor people lack discipline and self-sufficency. Not only are you expressing the exact middle class privilege that I speak of, your statement is a logical fallacy. How exactly does a poor person survive without the discipline to stick to a strict budget and carefully manage resources? How does my story of working 40 hours a week as a high school student not demonstrate self-sufficiency? If anything, poor people must demonstrate more disciple and self-sufficiency to survive day to day.

      Perhaps those students that you perceive as having distain for academic achievement simply have distain for a teacher (and school) that constantly treats them as inherently inferior and incapable? Yet pointing this out is considered being a victim and creating class warfare?

      Try this, insert “black” in every place you said “working class” and “white” in every place you said “middle class.” If you are uncomfortable with the result, then perhaps you should reconsider your classist beliefs. If you are comfortable with the result, then I have nothing further to discuss with you.

      1. Rita, you have yet to outline which values you feel are appropriate for classroom use. Would it be preferable to begin each year by stating that a classroom (or class) will be unconcerned with achievement, will not consider the future, and that students should be unconcerned with status? If that was my opening premise to the juniors and seniors sitting in front of me, they and their parents would have a problem with that.

        Further, while approaching all student situations from a “deficit model” is not productive, neither is the current fad of playing along with students who say, “I want to be a doctor/lawyer/architect,” when they’ve scored a 16 on their ACT. While these same students have innumerable strengths, not acknowledging academic deficits is highly unfair to the student. It’s damaging to perpetuate the “you can be whatever you want to be” myth for anyone. If this myth were true, I’d be an astronaut.

        Lastly, it seems a bit disingenuous to lecture a commenter on class beliefs when you state in your post, “From my perspective as a young college student, middle-class culture was selfish, greedy, disloyal, materialistic, opportunistic and shallow. Frankly, I still think that way to some extent.” How is this not classist?

        As long as we’re conflating class with race, I’ve never taught in a majority white school. Still, I see examples of selfish, greedy, disloyal, materialistic, and shallow behavior consistently. So, I’m not sure how the black vs. white comparison is helpful in this case.

        1. The comparison simply points out the bias in the commenter’s statement by placing them in a different context.

          My post was about my personal experience in college, not sure why I would be expected to outline anything about K-12 education. Fortunately, others have already done a lot of work on the subject. The link I posted above provides a lot of alternatives to what teachers can do in the classroom to minimize classist thinking and support poor students (and all students).

          Also notice that I said “to some extent” meaning that as a imperfect human being, I am prone to assumption at times. I have grown to see both the healthy and unhealthy aspects of a variety of value systems, including my own. The difference is that despite evidence to the contrary, any negative perspectives middle class culture are dismissed as inaccurate while, despite evidence to the contrary, postive perspectives on working class culture are also dismissed as inaccurate. That is the function of privilege.

      2. So I’m *possibly* a racist, a “classist” and a sufferer of privilege because I have a different opinion than you? Lighten up – don’t take yourself so seriously!

  5. Rita, everything you say makes sense to me, and I’d never thought of it quite like that before. You explain yourself so well! Thank you.

    And Edushyster, thank you for the forum that let me experience Rita’s insights.

  6. Thank you EduShyster for posting this important perspective. There is a whole different perspective that those of us who did not grow up in the mainstream middle class have that is often misunderstood or ignored. I can relate to Rita’s experiences, although my experience was different in many ways. I was far from the first in my family to go to college, but I grew up in a community with high poverty. My experiences did not match those of my peers – I had indoor plumbing and access to a telephone for the first time at college, while my roommate was the daughter of a Hollywood movie director. I naively thought that being at a prestigious school was about being able to pursue knowledge at a high level, and had no concept (or desire) to use the university name as a stepping stone to a corner office. I wanted to “escape” from my hometown, but I knew many who did not want to go to college, because they did not want to lose the ties to the community.

    1. Really? That’s your take-away from Rita’s thoughtful post about how invisible and often damaging class-based assumptions can make getting an education even harder than it already is for working class and poor kids? Oppression Olympics? Try opening your mind a crack. Some light may enter.

  7. I agree that it would be helpful to have an expanded accounting of the differences between “middle class norms and values” and those that the author of the article was raised with.

    The specific example of being formal, pleasant and professional in relationships with students, for example, is important if one believes that the power differential between faculty and students precludes the possibility of a healthy intimate relationship between faculty members and their students.

  8. I just read a review of a book that may be relevant to this discussion. The book is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. According to The Economist, “You will not read a more important book about America this year”.

  9. I’m so glad I came across this articulate post regarding the culture around colleges and in many public high schools. I am a pre-service teacher in my last year at a public university, and while we talk about culturally relevant teaching and addressing diverse classroom settings, I have little experience or true understanding apart from readings. I have a middle-class background and definitely see that culture, so I hope by reading this I have some slightly better understanding of cultural differences and how to be considerate of them.

Comments are closed.