Last month US News and World Report’s infamous college rankings were released. For the second year in a row Princeton took the number one slot.

“That’s probably because they were the first one of the top-ten to give full rides to low-income students,” I joked to my husband, a practicing academic (as opposed to my lapsed academic status we politely refer to as “independent scholar”). I didn’t have to say any more. He and I are both from the kinds of places you’ve never been to and most people don’t ever escape from. We’ve each spent half of our lives in elite institutions surrounded by the children of privilege. And we’ve bonded over a shared excitement about those moments when you get better ideas and more interesting questions from students who have had to fight their way in and up than from those who fell into a prescribed regimen of SAT prep, entrance essay tutors, and college interview training.

I also didn’t have to say why it mattered that it was Princeton. We still both talk about the dinner from years ago with his colleague, a Princeton alum. “There’s no such thing as a working-class academic,” he declared in the middle of our third course and his third home (his other holdings included a flat in London and another in the town where his partner was an academic a few states away). “And it’s just ridiculous to say there is.”

I agreed, of course, in that knee-jerk way young scholars have of backing up the power structure in the hopes of one day becoming the power structure. But later, when we came home to our 99% mortgage, I railed. Out of decades of sheer fatigue from too much striving and too many lost chances. And a sense that, once again, maybe we would never belong.

What his colleague meant, and what a lot of people mean when they say this, is that once you gain access to the privilege of academia, once you scale that Ivory Tower, you magically cease to have any of the problems often associated with lacking what your peers have. This is different from how we see race and gender, which although also mutable and complex, are often perceived as relatively fixed. One isn’t expected to turn white or male through the course of a Ph.D. (though it wouldn’t hurt). Yet too many people seem to expect that you will not only stop being working class, or underclass, or poor, or underprivileged, or any of the other amorphous and completely inadequate terms we use, but also that you will stop identifying with it. And that’s partly because most people still don’t understand that our class is a thing we will always carry, a thing that’s not just about money but also habits and history. And a whole lot more.

This can be even worse in top tier institutions, where the gap that must be bridged is even wider. Richard Rodriguez contemplated this 30 years ago in Hunger of Memory, which was in part a reflection on being a working-class Latino at Stanford. Even Cambridge professor Raymond Williams, one of the most important literary scholars of the 20th century, felt like an outsider. “It was never my Cambridge. That was clear from the start,” the son of a Welsh railway signalman wrote.

In the last 15 years, many of the top schools have developed programs to make college more affordable to their poorest admissions (never mind the hurdles the bottom 50% face to even get those admissions). But they still aren’t addressing cultural barriers that prevent those students from succeeding. And from belonging. Like Rodriguez, Williams, and many others, I still grapple with that problem 25 years after entering those academic cloisters dubbed This Fine Place So Far From Home by a book of the same name.

I lived the first five years of my life with my maternal grandparents: my mother’s father, a machinist for McDonell-Douglas, a hard-handed man hewn from tenant-farmer stock and the granite of the Great Depression, and her mother, who had fled the instability of her family-owned farm to become a telephone operator with regular wages and store-bought food. I lived with them again in my senior year of high school on the second-to-last stop in a year-long rotation of homes. With each move, each room in the back of someone’s house or down in their basement, I packed my suitcase and my filing cabinet filled with all those glossy brochures that all those amazing colleges had sent me saying, so I believed, “You belong here!” But when the offer letters came in the spring, I was living alone with my filing cabinet. My mother, burned out by work, family problems, and debt, took two turns in a psychiatric ward. “The doctor,” she told me, “says I’m like this because you’re leaving me for college.” And yet she still encouraged me to go.

She was 36 and recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which meant our household income from disability insurance was less than a year of tuition, room, and board at the University of Chicago—the place I was certain would be the home I’d always dreamed of. (And those were the halcyon days when you could get the whole package for a bargain at little more than 20 grand a year.) It was the best offer of six, and yet in the days before these financial aid initiatives in the top tier, it still meant that in summers I worked an office day job, a night retail job, and waited tables on the weekend to make the “student contribution” the financial aid office required. That, along with my term-time work-study job and the emotionally weighty loans that still keep me up at night. 

My first college boyfriend had perfect SAT scores and had spent his summers teaching math to students “gifted” as much with money as with brains. He’d already stashed a good five figures in the bank from a computer program he wrote. The only reason we’d met is that I’d already gone four figures into the red to find a place to belong among people like him. Like a lot of people I meet in academia, he found my outsider status alluring, a challenge: heavy smoker, bad grammar, Eliza Doolittle even down to the dodgy father. The few times he asked me about my father, I’d explain that he didn’t have a college degree and he’d spent most of my court-ordered visits fighting with me because I wanted one, especially one that came with ivy-covered quads and intensive seminars with world experts in their subjects. He carried an 18-year grudge. Ever since I could remember he told me things like, “You’ll die lonely and a bitch just like your mother.” Because, after all, look where a college degree had gotten her. My boyfriend didn’t believe me and said he’d never heard of parents who didn’t want their children to be more successful than they were. I told him I’d never heard of anyone who lived in such blissful ignorance.

By Thanksgiving break, I was already reeling from an awareness of just how different I was from everyone around me—both at school and at “home.” The university gave me books that helped me see my place in the world differently. Everything from John Locke to Virginia Woolf. And yet, I was not succeeding. I wasn’t even sure how to. And my old life kept intruding on my new. When I sat down to work each night, the phone often rang. It was my father’s second wife trying to convince me to leave school. It was my mother with bad news from a doctor’s appointment. It was my grandmother worrying about my mother. It was just a high school friend dying to tell me he’d been tipped with pot rather than cash on his last pizza delivery of the night. It was anyone from my life who didn’t understand the otherworldly concentration this kind of work required.

Even when I returned to Chicago for a Ph.D., I still struggled to belong. A senior female professor once scolded me, “Try to be more dignified!” when I began to cry about being late with a paper because of more family distractions. When I confessed to another my financial trouble, she suggested I leave because it was impossible to concentrate if you were worried about money. When my dissertation went on and on, through endless disruptions, distractions, and money worries, and I struggled in confusion with the deeply conflicting feedback from committee members, I thought about leaving it all behind. But the guilt that I would be letting down my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother who had invested in me for so long made me feel I could not leave without the very thing for which I’d come. In the final two years, I struggled to keep that determination, even as each of those women died, one after the other.

These are the kinds of problems I tried to address when I approached the advisors at the U of C fifteen years ago to suggest a support group for working-class students. The response was less than welcoming. At first, I was told such groups already existed. They pointed me to the Latino and African-American student clubs. Then, when I persisted on putting together an orientation panel for incoming students, I was told to make sure I focused on the “positive stories,” on those who had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, a phrase I have always found as absurd as it is offensive, especially when used by those with all the privilege. But of course, as Allison L. Hurst in College and the Working Class: What It Takes to Make It rightfully points out, “one of the privileges of class is being ignorant of difference.”

I’m ecstatic each time a new bastion of privilege announces it will do more to open itself up to people like me and my husband and make it more financially possible for us to come. And I’m relieved that they won’t produce more graduates like us, people who are on repayment plans that will take them into retirement and make them feel we can never really move ahead. But money is only part of the problem. There are the cultural pressures—not just of assimilation but the sheer weight of the things we carry. Universities need to do more to acknowledge them, and more importantly, to help their students cope with them. If they don’t, they risk squandering the talent they’ve recruited and invested in. And if they do, they will ensure an even higher rate of success for people who have already shown they’re willing to fight hard to become who they’ve always dreamed of being.


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