“A 13-year study that tracked students of different socioeconomic status found that ‘class trumps ability’ most times when it comes to college graduation, including when comparing top-achieving poor teenagers with top-achieving affluent teenagers.”
That’s the summary by Chalkbeat New York (which is an excellent source of info on NYC schools). It links to a New York Times article with some not-very-surprising findings: “A low-income college student with top math scores has the same chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree (41 percent) as a rich student with mediocre scores.”
The interesting question is why. It isn’t really the case that “class trumps ability.” What’s really going on is that class contributes to ability in ways that our standardized tests don’t capture. There are plenty of obvious ways that money makes college easier: wealthier students don’t need jobs, have time for study groups, can afford all of the books, have their own computers so they don’t have to trek to campus, can hire tutors, etc.
There may also be more subtle ways that class impacts ability. For example, research with elementary-grades students conducted by Jessica Calarco found that wealthier students are more likely to seek clarifications, ask for help, and generally demand what they need to be able to learn:
Compared to working-class students, middle-class children ask for more help from teachers, and approach these interactions more assertively, even calling out or getting up to make requests. Because teachers are more responsive to these proactive strategies, they become a form of cultural capital that yields meaningful but stratified social profits.
The working-class children Calarco observed learned less not because they were less able in the academic sense, but because they didn’t feel comfortable making demands on their teachers. Instead of making their needs known, often they waited for the teacher to be free to help them (or to notice they needed help).
Elementary teachers are generally quite attentive to children’s needs, so this is yet another example of small differences having a big impact over time. Now imagine this same class-based difference on a college campus. In my experience, college professors were not attentive. They expected their adult students be proactive and assertive. I’d love to see Calarco’s work replicated with college students—perhaps colleges could devise a support structure to help some students become more proactive.
Another way that class impacts ability is, of course, cultural literacy. Standardized tests are far from adequate in capturing the full range of knowledge that affects the daily interactions on college campuses. As Karin Chenoweth has noted, even the brightest of students can feel out of place in college if they lack the broad knowledge that wealthy students take for granted. In her autobiography, Sonia Sotomayor explains that despite her dedication as a student and top scores, “there was a world I had missed, of things that I didn’t know anything about … [As an adult] there are moments when people make references to things that I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
The toughest thing about such differences in knowledge is that far too many students misinterpret them as differences in innate ability or potential. They aren’t. We may not be able to remediate all of the obvious differences between or more- and less-advantaged students, but we can narrow the knowledge gap by giving everyone a rich, well-rounded, cumulative education. For our most determined students, we may be able to close the cultural literacy and assertiveness gaps, which may greatly increase their odds of graduating from college.