America is not a meritocracy. The figure on left demonstrates that it is the father’s level of education that is the primary factor in determining what level of education the child will receive. “College is a finishing school for affluent families and a glass ceiling for everyone else.” Richard Reeves in his book The Dream Hoarders argues this is structural - the affluent use their wealth to gain favors unavailable to the wiring class. Think of structures like legacy admissions or zero-sum situations like using your county club connections to get your child that coveted internship that now cannot go to anyone else. Socioeconomic class controls the way we think, the way we see the world and the way we parent. Affluent parents stress the teaching of independent values like expressing yourself, questioning authority, solving your own problems. Low income parents stress interdependent values like working well with others and following authority (see Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods). College admissions officers select for applicants with strong independent skill sets, not strong interdependent ones. This is a subtle but effective way that colleges discriminate against low income students.
Once in college, low income students suffer from lower completion rates. This connects back to socioeconomic status. Poor people don’t have a safety net, thus they are risk averse. They avoid speaking out. In college, such students are not going to advocate for themselves, not going to question a grade, not going to ask to speak to the professor. This behavior reinforces itself. As students respond to setbacks with isolation, it becomes ever more difficult to change their situations. Psychologists have a concept - “stereotype threat” - as low income students begin to struggle, they begin to believe that stereotypes about poor people (lazy, ignorant etc.) may actually be true. Finally, the motivations for going to college differ between low income students (I'm going to college to help my family) versus high income students (I'm going to colleg to expand my knowledge of the world). From the article: "In short, we just don't have a great idea of how advantaged or disadvantaged we are. But this means that, when lower-class students begin struggling in college, they blame themselves for their struggles. Gibbons says most of them were held to high standards in their hometowns and by their families, so asking for help feels like failure. So they feel they are failing because they aren't as capable. It reiterates the fear that they are the stereotype of the undereducated lower-class kid."
A study on first-generation college students
A study on college retention and graduation rates