Stratified Learning: Responding to
the Class System of Higher Education
By Sherry Lee Linkon, professor of English
and American Studies and codirector of the Center for
Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University
George Mason University. (Photo by Evan Cantwell,
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
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
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
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. http://chronicle.com/weekly/almanac/2007
(accessed June 12, 2008).
American Council on Education. 2006. Working their
way through college: Student employment and its impact
on the college experience. http://www.acenet.edu/AM/Template.cfm?
(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. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/15/national/class/OVERVIEW-FINAL.html?scp=2&sq=class+
in+america+series&st=nyt (accessed June 12,
Shor, I. 1980 (1987). Critical teaching and everyday
life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.