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The real reason working-class students in the US are dropping out of college

Cultural mismatch is causing some students to feel out of place. Source: Tim Gouw/Unsplash

Students from working-class families are those who are from low-income backgrounds, or first in their families to attend college.

Understandably, these students face several obstacles that others can’t begin to understand, and this can affect their ability to stay in college, even if they are straight A students.

Obstacles they face include needing additional tutoring because they didn’t receive a high-quality education in high school, as well as struggling to make ends meet and not having enough funds for basic needs like housing and food while in college.

But high drop-out rates for these students have always confounded policymakers and educators in the US, even as they strive to help students with those issues.

The Agenda has spent years studying this phenomenon, and has figured out what exactly it is that puts working-class students on the losing end when it comes to college. It’s an issue that goes beyond their everyday problems.

It appears that a cultural mismatch is what’s causing students to drop out, affecting not only their academic performance but also their mental health.

Many of these students reportedly feel out of place at their college or university, feeling they are simply guests in someone else’s home, and that the campus is not set up for students like them.

Many students from working-class families feel they don’t fit into the university culture. Source: Shutterstock

Research conducted by The Agenda shows that universities in the US today tend to rely on standards of merit that reflect independent values.

They encourage students to ‘pave their own paths’, be independent in their thinking, and feel comfortable expressing their personal preferences and thoughts.

While these are definitely good traits to encourage, this independent culture is actually alienating working-class students.

This is because they come from communities that prioritise a different set of values and way of thinking; those which fall in line with interdependence.

The Agenda explains, “They do so, in part, because they have fewer material resources than people raised in middle- and upper-class contexts, and therefore have less choice, influence, and control over their lives. Without an economic safety net, they are often socialized to follow the rules and attend to others’ needs and interests.

“While middle- and upper-class families tend to raise their children with the promise that the “world is your oyster,” many working-class families are built around a different reality: “You can’t always get what you want.”

While students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds focus on goals that reflect these standards of independence, like exploring their passions and striving to make their mark on the world, working-class students typically focus more on goals that reflect standards of interdependence, such as helping their families and giving back to their communities.

Unfortunately, these goals are often seen as ‘lesser’ or deficient when compared to other students’ interests that focus on themselves and their own passions.

Thus, there is a mismatch between the culture of independence and working-class culture of interdependence, and this is largely what’s leading to students feeling inferior and insecure about themselves.

According to The Agenda, when facing setbacks, working-class students tend to believe that they  —and they alone — are responsible, thinking, “I just don’t have what it takes” or “I must not be smart enough.”

Plus, the strong emphasis on independence may discourage them for seeking help or additional tutoring, believing they are just not adept enough and need to figure things out on their own.

So what can universities do to help combat this problem, since it lies in the very culture they have encouraged?

The Agenda says that it’s not a difficult fix. They said, “In our studies, we find that doing something as simple as revising a university welcome message to include concepts of interdependence (e.g., be part of a community) leads working-class students to perform just as well as their socioeconomically advantaged peers on an academic task.”

Universities can consider amending their websites, orientation materials, and student guidebooks to incorporate the value of community and interdependence, instead of only advocating for values of independence.

Another easy way to fix this problem is to promote more group learning. Research led by Andrea Dittmann found that asking students to work together interdependently on a problem-solving task can lead groups of working-class students to outperform groups of their socioeconomically advantaged peers.

Universities can help fix this problem by encouraging more group learning. Source: Shutterstock

Therefore, colleges can emphasise the value of group learning, and actively promote a community of peers, connecting all students to the support of advisors and mentors.

These are just a few examples of how universities can ensure working-class students are not labeled as deficient or inferior by the university culture.

This would make the American dream more accessible to those who need it most, providing them with an environment more familiar to them, instilling community values and making them feel less alone.

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