By: Johnny Hollis
In reflecting on the transition from an HBCU (Historically Black College and University) to law school, I realized that highlighting disparities based on race alone totally missed the point of what the real issue is in our country. That issue is the socioeconomic challenge that widens the gap between those who can escape poverty through educational means. There are many American citizens forced to live under the oppression of poverty because of socioeconomic challenges that rob them of the chance of obtaining an education.
How Does Socioeconomic Status Affect Education?
Socioeconomic status is the measure of influence that the social environment has on individuals, families, communities, and schools. Most of the time it is simply referred to as class, and is a strong indicator of performance in academic settings. Socioeconomic status is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation, and is conceptualized as the social standing or class of an individual or group. When viewed through a social class lens, privilege, power, and control are emphasized.
A student who comes from a higher socioeconomic status has the greatest opportunity to succeed in academic studies. Their parents are in a position to encourage creativity and extended studies. The student has less financial worries and is able to focus solely on the academic challenges and tools presented. The student is confident, poised, and excels without much external interference.
As with other areas of life, a person who grew up in a lower class may have to overcome challenges such as maintaining health, a living area, transportation, and adequate food. The simplest tasks become monumental because the power of money cannot be used to cross the hurdle. For example, a young man who came from a poor family cannot call home and ask his parents to buy his books. So either he must use the books in the library (which are in short supply and high demand), or he must work more in order to purchase his books, both of which may detract from his study time. Additionally, if he is placed in a position where there is no on-campus housing, then he likely has worry about paying rent and utilities on top of tuition and other academic expenses. While his wealthy colleague has a parent who may generously pay for living expenses, the poor student has to work in order to live.
When it comes to the classroom, instructors often do not understand the reason that a student may have to work, or why a student is sleepy or not performing well. The instructor can only perceive that the student is on edge and is performing poorly in the class. An oft-proclaimed mantra is: a student is responsible for his own future. Failure to succeed can be perceived as laziness or incompetence. It is difficult to relate to the poor student without an understanding of the systemic imperatives that deflect, detract, and deter poor students from escaping the cycle of poverty.
Paul Gorski, an associate professor in New Century College and a Research Fellow in the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, states that:
If we convince ourselves that poverty results not from gross inequities (in which we might be complicit) but from poor people’s own deficiencies, we are much less likely to support authentic antipoverty policy and programs. Further, if we believe, however wrongly, that poor people don’t value education, then we dodge any responsibility to redress the gross education inequities with which they contend. In our determination to “fix” the mythical culture of poor students, we ignore the ways in which our society cheats them out of opportunities that their wealthier peers take for granted. We ignore the fact that poor people suffer disproportionately the effects of nearly every major social ill. They lack access to health care, living-wage jobs, safe and affordable housing, clean air and water, and so on—conditions that limit their abilities to achieve to their full potential.
How Do We Move Forward
Historically, our nation has experienced difficulty in providing the tools needed to achieve “the American dream.” While schools are plentiful, the cost of college education continues to skyrocket. Since 1985, the college education costs have risen over 500%. This deters the amount of poor students who attempt to achieve a college degree. These rising costs also leave those who do attend college with an even greater debt. According to U.S. News, over 25% of graduate students will graduate with college debt that tops $100,000. As our nation moves forward, we could advocate for making college education more affordable, while restructuring our public assistance programs towards promoting post-secondary education.
The Washington Post writes that Germany eliminated or significantly reduced tuition because they understood that the rise in cost “discourage[s] young people who do not have a traditional academic family background from taking up study . . . and [ensures] that young women and men can study with a high quality standard free of charge.”  In France’s public institutions, undergraduate tuition is based on the income of a student’s parents. Meanwhile, in Sweden, one of the richest countries in the world, PhD programs are completely free.
Perhaps the United States is far from reaching a point in its politics and social policies to allow for the free education programs that are provided in Germany, France, and Sweden. However, we can challenge the current public assistance regulations and incentivize recipients who return to school and learn a trade or earn a professional degree. If we can at least make college education and graduate studies more affordable, this will be a huge step towards abolishing the obstacles that create no class for low class.