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First-Generation Students, Social Class, and Literacy

August 26, 2008

By Snell, Theron P

I work as an academic adviser and adjunct instructor at a small, public, four-year university that provides the usual spread of bachelor’s degree programs, as well as several master’s degrees. I have done similar work at a private liberal arts college and at a branch campus of a large state school. I bring to this work not only a PhD in American studies but also experience teaching English in a Colombian high school for two years and teaching English as a second language in a language institute in Bogota, Colombia, for a year. At each of the U.S. institutions at which I have worked, administrators and faculty alike have worried about and studied first-generation college students, looking at specific academic and social challenges these students face and how best to ensure student success. I want to look at this concern about first-generation students from the perspective I have gained from working at a smaller, regional university and from teaching cross-culturally. Although faculty members and administrators invoke first-generation status to explain many of the academic problems they perceive, my experience suggests that social class and local social environment, particularly their respective effects on literacy, are just as crucial indicators of success. Class, in fact, may act as a multiplier to first- generation status.

First-Generation Students

The most common challenges attributed to first-generation students involve academic behaviors as well as student and family expectations. At my institution, for example, faculty members confront a cross-cultural disconnect between their expectations and student behavior, most pointedly when students miss classes or do not complete required out-of-class assignments. These lapses are variously viewed as a result of simple lack of interest, poor attitude, or first-generation ignorance of how to do academic work. I think this behavior is more complex; many of these students work too hard in their lives outside of school and are too bright for these explanations to suffice.

After eight years at my small state university, I have become used to the social and pedagogical impact of this behavior – what I call the dark side of the work ethic. The dark side rests on the premise that education exists solely to improve work opportunities and salary. Socially, going to college is often tolerated only insofar as it provides added value to work. Pedagogically, the classes that count are those in a major and those that can add employment value to any degree. These views lead students to choose overtime or extra work hours over classes, even to the point of missing quizzes or deadlines. They lead students and families to devalue the work they do to succeed in classes. Sometimes, they lead families to designate acceptable majors and even acceptable institutions to students. At the extreme, they lead families to provide financial and moral support to their students only so long as the students go into what the families think are high-paying fields.

Paradoxically, fixating on work actually seems to impede students from choosing their majors here. While our administrators wonder why so many students are still undecided at sixty credits, we meet daily with advisees obviously working toward a major but still afraid to commit to it in writing. Instead of embracing their fields, they almost distrust them (or themselves). Many students confess that they are not sure whether they will want to work in their field for all their lives: “I really like X major, but don’t know if I will in ten years.” Other students ask plaintively, “How can I choose X if I can’t apply it directly to a job with the same title?” We continue to hear from students who say they do not care about the major as long as they can make money with it. But, more often, students have had parents tell them that nursing or business or teaching, for example, offer long-term job stability; students themselves discuss choosing between what they are good at and what they can “use.”

These attitudes and behaviors cannot be completely explained by simply invoking the phenomenon of first-generation students and the lack of personal and family knowledge of higher education. Census figures from 2000 show that almost 52 percent of the population twenty-five years old and older (our students’ parents or siblings) have done college coursework, with 24 percent of this population earning a bachelor’s degree or higher. For the most part, my state mirrors these figures. National numbers indicate that academic behaviors typical of first-generation students are present in larger cohorts and cannot be attributable solely to first-generation status.

Instead, the impact of class and local mores on quality of educational preparation combines with larger mass-cultural or social definitions and valuations of education to explain student behaviors. I work at what can be called a blue-collar regional university, which attracts students who do not or cannot go to the flagship schools in the system. The university draws on three urban areas, one of which has the highest unemployment rate in the state. This region has seen industrial jobs flee, leaving communities trying to attract new industrial jobs or turning to gentrification. The people of this region see education as the ticket to economic and social stability, despite being unwilling to leave the area to find the jobs.

In terms of income level and amount of time devoted to work outside of school, the students at my institution are working class. Since 2003, between 49 and 53 percent of our first-year students have been working sixteen hours a week or more. Some 22 percent of first-year students describe themselves as primary caregivers. The figures are higher for seniors. Because only 21 percent of the student body is nontraditional in age, these numbers say a great deal about both the financial need and focus of the students in general. Moreover, 38 percent of the university’s full-time equivalent enrollment received Pell Grants in 2006, again indicating the income level of the student body.

Here class intenningles with the status of first-generation, non- traditional-age, and traditional-age students with nontraditional life demands and, in turn, intersects with academic behavior and choices. The social and academic lines between these three groups blur. Unlike stu- dents from economically advantaged backgrounds, these students need to value paid work over school. Their work ethic focuses upon paid work and either does not or cannot extend to academic involvement. First- generation, nontraditional-age, or those traditional-age students with nontraditional demands become, in effect, subgroups of class, with class affecting how students in these groups “do” education.

Importance of Literacy

Perhaps because I have taught English composition and high school English, I find that the national trends in literacy, especially as they are reflected at my university, best illustrate the interactions between and among social behavior, academic preparation, and the successful transition to a university setting. Combining data from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), and ACT provides an overview of literacy in the United States and thus a context for looking at the students at my institution. Our students are no less prepared nor more disadvantaged than students at many other institutions. Yet, given that 70 percent of our students come from three contiguous counties and reflect the tax, employment, and class backgrounds of this area, my institution illustrates how place, with its socioeconomic peculiarities, affects student behavior and school “culture.”

The national literacy numbers establish links among the amount of reading, the level of competence, and the resulting ACT scores. The NEA measures literary reading, defined as reading any poetry, fiction, or drama, even Danielle Steel or Louis L’Amour. According to NEA numbers from 2004, literary reading declined 17 percent between 1982 and 2002 for people eighteen to twenty-four years old. Just as significantly, such reading has declined 14.4 percent for people twenty-five to thirty-four years old and 10 percent over all ages. The rate of decline for traditional college-age students, though, is 55 percent greater than it is for the total adult population. This rate implies decreasing interest in and capacity for complex reading activities.

At the same time, the numbers imply that the role of income and class overshadows the importance for literacy of being part of a firstgeneration cohort. While the 2004 NEA report, Reading at Risk, states that the literary reading rate correlates more closely to educational attainment than to family income, the numbers suggest a close connection between family income and reading rates. Only about one-third of those from the lowest income group (families with income under $10,000) read literature during the survey year, compared to 61 percent of those from the highest income group (families with income of $75,000 or more). The report makes the obvious connection between low income and lower education levels and then points out that while only 23 percent of the families had incomes of $75,000 or more, they bought over 33 percent of the books. Perhaps as important for educators, the NEA report also highlights the correlation between high reading rates and likelihood of participating in volunteer or charity work, visiting art museums, and attending performing arts and sporting events-that is, engaged readers also engage the outside world. Given the income information, therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the lower the income and education levels, the lower the literary reading rates and the lower the ability or inclination of students to engage academically and socially. This is not simply a firstgeneration issue; it becomes, in part, an issue of income and class. Small wonder, then, that the recent announcement that a local school system is cutting its librarians has raised concern among educators here.

This lack of inclination and ability among lower-income students is reflected in the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. NAAI, divides literacy achievement into four levels: below basic (from being nonliterate to being able to locate easily identifiable information in short, basic sentences), basic (able to read and understand information in short, commonplace prose texts), intermediate (able to understand moderately dense, less commonplace prose texts, as well as to summarize, make simple inferences, determine cause and effect, and recognize an author’s purpose), and proficient (able to read lengthy, complex texts; synthesize information; and make complex inferences). Clearly, university work requires proficient readers.

Yet, in the 2006 NAAL, only 12 percent of people nineteen to twenty-four years old tested proficient, with 48 percent testing intermediate. NAAL also noted that the reading level of college graduates dropped from a 40 percent proficiency rate in 1992 to a 31 percent proficiency rate in 2003. Reading proficiency declined as literary reading rates declined. At the same time, NAAL statistics show that in 2005, 53.5 percent of low-income high school graduates (defined as those with the bottom fifth of family incomes) entered college, while 65.1 percent of middleincome graduates (middle 60 percent of family incomes) and 81.2 percent of high-income graduates (top fifth of family incomes) entered college. And this does not take into account how many low-income students did not complete high school, suggesting that family income affects learning outcomes more strongly than college performance figures suggests. Both NAAL and NEA numbers indicate that the higher the income, the more likely people are proficient readers. But at the same time, contact with college graduates does not guarantee proficient reading.

Both ACT and NAAL suggest that nearly half of students entering college fail to meet the intermediate or proficient reading level necessary to have a better-than-average statistical chance of being successful in their college courses. Taken together with the NEA report, these reports indicate that literacy is not an across-the- board value. And these numbers become more pronounced among students with lower levels of income and education. Students coming from households where no one reads can be expected to be at a disadvantage. This is in part a class issue.

Student Expectations

Looking again at my institution, recall how many of the students work and how many are caregivers. About 80 percent of the students commute. In 2006, 62 percent of the incoming students placed into a remedial reading course and 42 percent placed into a remedial composition course.

Literacy rates, reading proficiency, and test scores together affect how our students see their role at the university and what they expect from faculty and courses. More and more students arrive at my institution with little facility with exactly the kind of intellectual processing needed to succeed. This connection between our local numbers and more general literacy numbers clearly involves income and class levels, with income level acting not as cause but as multiplier of student expectations. The lower the income, the more apt students are to be dualistic learners, reading for data alone and looking for correct answers in the classroom. That the trend to dualistic learning cuts across college graduates as well as across all income groups only reinforces how income level multiplies that tendency.

Finally, the literacy processes our students bring to this institution, as well as general academic behaviors, the majors being chosen, and the process by which students choose their majors, are all shaped by income, class, and education level. Firstgeneration students are only part of the cohorts being affected. Our students react to economic factors, parental interests, and received wisdom about which majors are moneymakers and which ones give the fastest access to the job market. Furthermore, reading discrepancies indicate a cross-cultural gap between faculty, who generally read literature for pleasure, and their students, who read less and less and generally do not read literature for pleasure. This gap implies that students lack exactly the intellectual practice and involvement that faculty require and expect for academic success. The students have neither the reading background nor practice in engaging the world of ideas. All of the issues highlighted in the national data, therefore, come together at once, and literacy proves to be a better marker for academic success than does having a college graduate in one’s family.

The most important indicator of future college success is how much and how well students read.




First-Generation Students, Social Class, and Literacy

Theron P. Snell is an academic adviser, academic actions officer, and adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin- Parkside. His e-mail address is theron.snell@uwp.edu.

Copyright American Association of University Professors Jul/Aug 2008

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