Cross-Class Encounters, Social Capital and Moral Judgments at an Elite College

The sociology of education is a chapter, and not a minor one at that, in the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of power…  [Given that] the structure of social space as observed in advanced societies is the product of two fundamental principles of differentiation – economic capital and cultural capital – the educational institution, which plays a critical role in the reproduction of the distribution of cultural capital and thus in the reproduction of the structure of social space, has become a central stake in the struggle for the monopoly on dominant positions.” (Bourdieu 1996: 5)

According to the recent report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce), although thousands of Pell Grant recipients (low-income students receiving undergraduate financial aid) are qualified to attend elite colleges, the majority go to schools with graduation rates of under 50 percent. The report also found that, even though many of the US most prestigious schools operate with a budget surplus of over $100 million, less than 20 percent of their students are low-income students. “Just as colleges are stratified by race, they are stratified by class,” the Georgetown researchers rightly state (p.3). The picture that emerges from this report is troubling and this definitely turns the spotlight on class relations.
One of the facets of this strained reality is portrayed in Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite Collegean interesting and important book by Ohio University sociologist Elizabeth M. Lee on the experiences of low-income, working-class students in an elite academic institution and their cross-class interactions within the campus community. 
What happens to talented but economically challenged “first-generation” students when they do arrive on campus? What are the inner and outer features of this encounter and how they are interpreted by all the involved social actors? These are the questions that shape and direct the book.
Basing on two years of thorough fieldwork and more than 140 longitudinal interviews, Lee adds depth to our understanding of inequality in higher education from less known point of view. She shows how class differences are enacted and negotiated by students, faculty, and administrators at an elite liberal arts college for women located in the US Northeast. One of the strongest aspects of the book is its analysis of underlying moral judgments brought to light through cultural connotations of merit, hard work by individuals, and “making it on your own” ethos that permeate American higher education. Using students’ own descriptions and perceptions of their experiences to illustrate the complexity of these issues, Lee explores how the lived socioeconomic difference is often defined in moral, as well as economic, terms, and that often unspoken tensions undermine lower-income and lower-status students’ senses of belonging and even cause them deleterious consequences.
Class and Campus Life is indeed a well-crafted and intellectually engaging book on the social, moral and personal costs of apparently promised mobility in, yet, a classed reproductive and highly unequal society.
As I opened this post, in order to anchor it in a broad perspective, with Bourdieu’s quote from his classic The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power, given the theme of Lee’s research it is appropriate to conclude with Bourdieu’s focused observation regarding the dependence of social capital on access to social networks and the quality of resources: “Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources that are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital… that entitles them to credit in the various senses of the word” (Bourdieu 2001: 102-103).
Of course, this is also valid, even more so, when the trajectory is reversed.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1996 [1989]. The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. Stanford University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 2001 [1983]. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 96-111 in The Sociology of Economic Life, edited by Mark Granovetter and Richard Swedberg. Westview.  (An open access to this article)
Lee, Elizabeth M. 2016. Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite College. Cornell University Press

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