Class and the Halls of Ivy

Graduate student Elizabeth Lee studies socioeconomic inequality in higher education.
April 7, 2011

During her years working in the financial aid office of an elite university, sociology doctoral student Elizabeth Lee was struck by the discrepancy between her daily dealings with students and their own experiences at school. "I spoke with low-income students day in and day out," Lee says, "yet many of them told me they felt alone and isolated—that they didn't know anyone else who was like them at the school. I realized that the way we dealt with their issues on campus was strictly pragmatic, and I became interested in the aspects of their experiences that were not being addressed."

Since coming to Penn, Lee has been conducting research on how socioeconomic inequality plays out in the context of higher education. Her work has been funded by a Benjamin Franklin Fellowship and an Otto and Gertrude K. Pollak Summer Research Fellowship from Penn, and by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Lee's dissertation explores the ways organizational factors—as well as peer interactions—affect low socioeconomic status (SES) students attending elite colleges where they are the statistical and numerical minority. She focused her study on a women's liberal arts college (given the pseudonym Lakeside College). For two years she lived in the town where the college is located, and she engaged in participant observation of students' academic, extracurricular and social activities, and conducted more than 200 interviews with Lakeside students, alumni, faculty and administrators.

"Sociologists of education haven't tended to look at higher education as much as primary and secondary schooling because we tend to see college as an outcome. But we really need to look further at what happens once you get past the gates, and not just in terms of access or graduation rates." – Elizabeth Lee

"One reason I chose Lakeside," Lee says, "is because it's a school where most students come from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds and where the student body always has been that way—so it was designed traditionally to serve students from this background. However, Lakeside also represents a best-case scenario in that it now enrolls a higher percentage of low-income students than many of its peer institutions."

Lee observed that, like many colleges, Lakeside is conscious about promoting the diversity of its student body and presents socioeconomic status as part of this diversity narrative. Low SES students participate in this narrative both passively—for example, by being included in statistics Lakeside collects on its percentage of first-generation students or students receiving Pell Grants—as well as actively, such as being profiled on Lakeside's website or giving presentations to alumni.

For some low SES students, Lee found, this participation feels like a weight not shared by their peers. "They feel like they're being asked to bring something extra," she says, "which is to represent diversity or economic mobility in the story that the college wants to tell about itself." Additionally, some of these students worry they may have been admitted to boost the college's diversity statistics rather than for their own merit.

"This is a really mixed bag for students," Lee explains, "because on one hand almost all of the students I interviewed really like being at Lakeside. But they also feel a little insecure about their place at the college and whether they are appreciated as students in their own right."

Students at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum have concerns about others' perception of their wealth or poverty. Some worry about being seen as "scholarship kids," admitted to fill a quota, and others worry that they were admitted only because their parents could afford Lakeside's cost with no aid.

When Lee studied peer-to-peer interactions, however, she found that despite students' consciousness of socioeconomic inequalities, low SES students work hard to avoid addressing the issue openly. One way they do this is to sort potential friendships based on monetary factors. For example, if a peer seems like she enjoys expensive outings, a low SES student might simply avoid befriending her, rather than developing the friendship and then refusing to partake in such activities. Despite this sorting process, Lee explains, Lakeside students do develop friendships and romantic relationships across socioeconomic boundaries. Nevertheless, even in close friendship groups, they often "quietly opt out" of having conversations about socioeconomic inequalities.

Lee is now bridging her findings on the institutional and peer-to-peer levels through a discussion about how organizational context matters to individuals. She argues, for example, that Lakeside's strong emphasis on community—centered on the school's housing system—may play a role in why students avoid discussing socioeconomic inequality. At Lakeside, students live and dine in small residence halls, and they locate their friendships and social lives in them. Lee conjectures that although students do find the college's emphasis on community to be enjoyable and supportive, they may lack the space to explore inequality openly.

"When there was a conflict between acknowledging inequality and emphasizing community," Lee says, "students would sidestep controversy to be able to share an ideal of community."

Lee hopes her research will help broaden the scope of studies about socioeconomic inequality in education. She is currently working on another project, which combines her interview data from Lakeside as well as statistical data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, to study how low SES students manage transitions between their home and school lives. And she's embarking on two new studies—one that examines how colleges represent their student bodies to the public and another that explores the relationships faculty from low SES backgrounds have with low SES students.

"Sociologists of education haven't tended to look at higher education as much as primary and secondary schooling," Lee explains, "because we tend to see college as an outcome. But we really need to look further at what happens once you get past the gates, and not just in terms of access or graduation rates. In what ways do socioeconomic differences play out in terms of experiences, advantages and disadvantages on campus? What are the ways in which colleges and universities both support students and unintentionally undermine them? How can we do better?"