The Elite Poor

Here’s an interesting story in the Boston Globe about poor students attending Ivy League schools and very often struggling with their new environment, not in the least because they are often the first in their families to attend college at all, and thus have little guidance from family and friends on how to navigate the academic surroundings. I found it interesting because their story is in many ways my story: I was the first of my family to go to college (indeed, I was the only one of my immediate family to finish high school), and I went to the University of Chicago, which is not an Ivy but is certainly an elite school (currently #4 in the US News “national university” ranking, tied with Columbia and Stanford). And I was poor when I went to school there.

That said, I had an advantage that many first generation college students don’t — for high school I attended a private boarding school (scholarship kid), which gave me four years to work out my class angst — and there was some — and also learn how to navigate issues of privilige, of which not the least was accepting the fact that I was starting the journey away from poverty, and the worldview it engenders, and toward privilege, and that worldview. I’ve said before that when one has been poor one never forgets what that’s like, and that remains true. But by the time I got to college, most of my really difficult battles on that score were settled. I was decently well assimilated into the elite world view.

And as it happens I think the elite world view — essentially, the belief that one of the people behind the levers of the world will be you — is not always a bad one to have. But it needs to be tempered by awareness of a world outside privilege, so one is not oblivious to the fact that the world outside your door is filled with people who don’t benefit from the same easy connection to power that you now have, thanks to networks and name brand recognition. This is where first-generation students at elite schools can make a difference. They can be a bridge between two worlds in a way few others can.

They have to make it through the transition first, however. And sometimes that’s hard.

55 Comments on “The Elite Poor”

  1. My situation was similar – I was the first person in my family to go to college. I didn’t really have the elite problem – Cornell is elite but it’s also pretty democratic, and I was enrolled in the state school half – but I lacked a lot of pragmatic information (strategies and tactics) and basically didn’t have a clue as to how to actually succeed and build a career. So I drifted a lot during and after college.

    In hindsight, although I learned tons and had many nice profs and others who advised me, I think I would have done better at a smaller school with stronger mentorship.

    My partner is about to become next year’s Posse Mentor at Kalamazoo College. The Posse Program has an excellent record of helping nontraditional and disadvantaged students succeed. Intensive mentorship is part of it, but they also have programs and processes that foster leadership, inclusiveness, etc. They truly succeed in leaving almost no one behind.

  2. One of my friends in that situation attempted (but fortunately did not succeed at) suicide during college as an underclassman. We’d had no idea. There were also complicating factors (stopping a medication unmonitored, etc.), but feeling behind was part of it.

    Like you say, in every situation I’ve personally known about, every news article (NPR had a series many years back on lower SES kids on private high school scholarships and checked back years later), every interview of someone important with that kind of background, it was hard to transition, but after the transition the people in question gained immensely jumping up socioeconomic classes. That isn’t just good for society, it’s also good for the people who do the jumping. Being upper-middle class is really really nice, especially for those who have reason not to take it for granted. Going to Harvard does not hurt people long-term and problems with transitioning should not be used as a reason to keep underrepresented groups out, but instead they should be used to spur help ease the transition.

  3. I was the first in my family to go to college, and one of the few to finish HS (none of my siblings graduated HS, for example). It was a huge shock, which I dealt with mostly by not speaking my frosh year. What made it super weird was that I went to a “women’s ivy”, so there were a lot of international students, especially from Muslim countries where women don’t have access to higher education. I cannot tell you what it is like for a blue collar scholarship student to find out that her dorm neighbor is actual royalty and could buy the school, if she wanted. Turned out that she was a super sweet person, though.

  4. Nicoleandmaggie:

    “it was hard to transition, but after the transition the people in question gained immensely jumping up socioeconomic classes.”

    This was certainly the case with me. As I said elsewhere on the same subject, I was poor going into the University of Chicago; I haven’t been poor since I graduated from it.

  5. In the Heights (a play) touched on this theme, and the additional problem of poor kids getting academic scholarships without being able to afford the rest of the necessities of living in an upperclass environment: books, lodging, food, and the ability to socialize with one’s classmates outside of class.

  6. Sharon Murphy Karpierz:

    My own experience of this aspect of things was actually fairly positive; in high school (which is when I had most of my class angst) my friends, simply, decided we were a crew and spotted me for the things we did. As a result I was never excluded and they never made a big deal of it. It was just part of the landscape. The flip side of this was later, when I was a film critic right out of college and they were still in college/in grad school/in joe jobs building resumes, I would take them to movie premieres and events, and out to dinner, etc.

    It all balanced out, in other words — but the important thing was there was never an expectation that there was anything to balance out. We were friends, and friends do for each other. And that’s how it is.

  7. I come from the working poor and was the first of my family to go to university. But I never did fit in, although I learned to mimic middle class ways. University, for me, was the sixteenth school I had been to (and I’d skipped grade four) because my father was always moving us around. I’d already become “just a guy passing through,” never making long-term connections. And now that I’m a wandering housesitter/novelist, I’m finally living the life I was trained for in boyhood.

  8. I read an article a few years after I graduated from college that provided the term for people like me–those who’d been raised working class and now resided in the middle-class world: “straddlers”. We’re familiar with both the farm/union hall/assembly line, but also the conference room/management presentation/gourmet restaurant. We can go back and forth between them, familiar with both, but still not completely comfortable in either.

    There’s that little voice in the back of your head that whispers “traitor” or “imposter”. Either way, you don’t *really* belong here (any more).

    College was a shock for me, even though it was a state school. The sum total of college experience amongst all my extended family (parents, sibling, aunts, uncles, and cousins was one year, that of the one cousin one year older than me. I thought college was essentially “advanced high school”. I didn’t *really* struggle, but went from valedictorian to a low 3 average. What I did miss, though, because I was ignorant of it, was the many opportunities that were available to me as a college student. Co-ops? Internships? The up-and-coming bands? It’s not that I ignored them, I just didn’t know there were such things. In an orientation session just before classes started I asked a question, one I was genuinely puzzled about, and the professor running the session publicly dissed me–and not only did I not understand why he didn’t answer my question, I didn’t even realize I’d just been publicly insulted!

    Many years later now I’ve grown comfortable as a straddler (learning it was actually a thing helped a lot) and do work to bridge that gap between the two worlds.

  9. Scalzi makes a very good point. The elite world view is very valuable to learn. One of my big surprises upon entering graduate school was that a large number of my fellow students already had NSF fellowships. I had no idea even how to apply for one of those, and this was despite having frequent contact with faculty at Cal Berkeley. The reason for this was that I didn’t even know the right questions to ask!

    People frequently think that coming from a poor or immigrant background isn’t a disadvantage as long as you’re not impoverished. My experience indicates that there’s a wealth of knowledge that’s missing and requires significant effort to overcome. What you don’t know that you don’t know hurts you more than you imagine, even taking into account that you’re bright and hardworking compared to those who are privileged.

  10. And as it happens I think the elite world view — essentially, the belief that one of the people behind the levers of the world will be you — is not always a bad one to have. But it needs to be tempered by awareness of a world outside privilege, so one is not oblivious to the fact that the world outside your door is filled with people who don’t benefit from the same easy connection to power that you now have, thanks to networks and name brand recognition

    Nobless Oblige (or something rather like it). I absolutely agree. I don’t think that’s sufficient for a decent society, but it’s certainly part of the puzzle. Far, far too many of our plutocrats are either totally disconnected from the great unwashed (and thus don’t “get it” even if they mean well) or know perfectly well and simply don’t give two shits.

    My background is one of relative privilege (to borrow a bit from someone else, I was born on 2nd base but know damn well I didn’t hit a double). There was never, not even for a moment, any doubt that I would attend college (my father was a highly educated Brit, though my mom is a high school grad who went to work at 17 and is still working as an admin 50 years later). And that I’d do fine in my education and my life. And, as it turns out, those assumptions look correct. Though hardly ever dealing with serious adversity wasn’t great for my resilience.

    There are few things that bother me more than hearing one of “my people” (roughly speaking, let’s say 90th-99.5th percentile by income, came from middle class or above background, white) whining about how tough they’ve got it because of taxes. It really, really pushes my buttons. It’s embarrassing.

  11. Seem to recall a story about the old pattern of wealth: hard working immigrant arrives at the shores without education and gets his hands dirty, child learns the benefit of hard work and applies it using education and opens a business, next generation goes further in education, expands the business and family begins to grow rich, 4th generation takes the education and business for granted and wastes it, squandering the business, 5th generation leaves to immigrate somewhere else and start over.

  12. My family at large has been up and down through the generations, though we’re currently on the up-side. My grandfather was the first person in his county (not family, county) to go to college, and grew up in a literal one-room shack. But at the same time, he came from an aristocratic family, and the family myth is that while some individuals may grow up poor, usually due to mental illness, or alcoholism on the part of their parents, the family as a whole (the name if you will) is educated, well off, and part of the elite. I suspect that family myth/ethos made it a lot easier for Grandpa in his quest up the economic scale.

    My husband, otoh, came from straight up working poor, blue collar stock, was the first to go to college, and so forth. He handled the transition fairly well, but I know that he was studying me and how I interacted socially, and what my assumptions were about the world while we were dating. These days he’s much more comfortable with both sides than I am.

  13. I did not see this coming. From the title, I assumed the article would be about people with PhDs, teaching as adjunct faculty and qualifying for SNAP (food stamps) benefits.

  14. My daughter is navigating through those waters now. Well no. Actually She’s a rising senior and I’d say she has navigated. She’s not the first to go to college, both her father and I attended a state college, but she’s a lower middle class child at an elite school. Many of the students there carry an attitude of privilege that is at the very least annoying. Oh the shock when you ask them to be quiet at a gathering where someone is trying to speak to the group. Their faces say “don’t you know who I am?”

    I heartily hope they will grow out of that mind set, but I’m not holding my breath.

    My daughter has learned to avoid and work around these individuals and now has a handful of good friends. She’ll be fine, and hopefully will grow to understand that she too can man the levers. I heartily hope she’s on the way up the financial ladder and will never have to make uncomfortable decisions about money that we made as she was growing up.

    I work in a similar institution and the difference between mind set is striking. Students who either don’t have or don’t use their privilege as a battering ram are delightful to work with and have no use for those who do. They seem quite pleased to graduate and leave dealing with that attitude behind.

  15. @ Kate George — my friend teaches at a small private college and she describes exactly this difference in behavior. She has a night class with mostly working students that she loves; they are engaged, respectful, responsible. Her day classes are filled with privileged students who cannot or will not turn off their phones and find any scrap on InstaGram automatically more interesting than what the instructor is saying.

  16. The reverse also occurs; I recall as an undergraduate noting that a few boarding school students dropped from school after a month of six weeks, perhaps because of the lack of structure. As an instructor, I’ve seen students from a parochial school environment not last more than a month, perhaps again because of the lack of the same kind of structure that they’d had. My guess, if there’s research on point, is that those from privileged backgrounds tend to do better in school, but that it’s no guarantee of success.

  17. I could swear I’ve seen a similar piece on here before… I’m positive Scalzi’s talked about how he made the transition at boarding school so university was much less of a change for him than it might otherwise have been… If I were less lazy, I might dig that up. Am I crazy, or…?

  18. My mom and her oldest brother were the first in her family (and extended family) to go to college.Neither of her parents finished high school. She nearly flunked out of college because she didn’t know how to study because she’d always breezed through school before. She lost her scholarship and then was a maid to a professor to work her way through school (which funnily enough, is how she learned a lot of things like how to throw dinner parties, basically learning upper class skills). She did graduate though with a degree in engineering but she’s never forgotten where she came from and she made sure that my brother and I knew that too (despite our dad being ivy college educated and the son of a banker). And as Sharon said, her scholarship didn’t cover things like a meal plan. I grew up hearing her tell me that she would always love one of her older brothers because he bought her meal plan for her during her freshman year so that she could eat.

  19. There is another painful issue of social class and acclimatization: having been told throughout public school that one was extraordinarily bright and academically accomplished, then finding oneself at an academically elite school and merely in the middle of the pack. There was for me at least a keen sense of betrayal.
    This is not what was promised to me! Other students took their superior preparation at better schools for granted.

  20. I did not attend Harvard (in the mid-70s) despite being accepted from a blue collar public high school, because my non-college-educated parents told me that if I went there they would insist I commute daily from home (none of us realizing it would not have been permitted).

    So instead I attended a “Seven Sisters once removed” elite women’s college just far enough away that my parents couldn’t require commuting. My AP test score advanced me past freshman English but I had no idea how to write a research paper so I stuck with Physics, Math and Music to avoid writing. I had to fight not to be started in Calculus 3, but even Calculus 2 was far beyond anything I’d had in my blue collar high school.

    Unfortunately I had been given a merit scholarship based on what they thought I was (undiscovered intellect from the lower classes) and my attempts to get tutoring were met with “oh, you know this – just try harder.” So rather than lose the financial support that was the only way for me to attend college I became really good at what seemed my only option – cheating.

    My need to uphold their illusions about me, plus dealing with the preppy students, PLUS discovering what “gay” meant and that I was that in a conservative community all left me seriously depressed and passively suicidal. I barely avoided flunking out my last semester even though I had already started a job at an impressive consulting firm (which fortunately also had great mental health benefits for the time).

    It took me decades to recover from my college experience and the “impostor” feelings with which it left me. For a while I would take extension school classes offered by my current employer just to prove to myself that I could really earn an honest “A”.

    But college DID make the difference in where I am today: being in the Math dept meant I took the *one* computer science class available in 1976 and gave me a student-aid job helping psych students use the keypunch and load statistical data into programs on a time-shared PDP-10. After that initial post-college consulting job I got one in an academic library supervising keypunchers, kept moving up in IT jobs as technology progressed, and have now been in IT for 35 years at … Harvard!

  21. On another thread I connected the dots between a week-long New York Times series on how Class is defined in America, with my person observations as my family has maneuvered between Upper, Middle, and Lower Classes (3 subclasses in each class, from Lower Poor up through Old Rich)…
    Few Old Rich authors succeed, exceptions including Larry Niven, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, and John Astor (Fantasy/SF novelist who went down on the Titanic.

  22. Kilroy:

    That’s the old tale (the one I heard had one less step I think), but I don’t think it actually matches up with reality. There’s a lot of class mobility in that old story. The truth appears to be that class mobility, even in relatively egalitarian societies, is low.

    There’s a lot “American Dream!” stuff that only makes sense in the context of the US between the end of WWII and roughly 1972. That period was an aberration (and it was very much the result of a ton of governmental intervention).

  23. This American Life did a long story about this on NPR. It would be worth checking out. It may no longer be a free do, but I think it would still be worth it.

  24. Sometimes I think the most important thing I learned in high school was how to navigate a bureaucracy. The academic part was awesome for me, but that’s a baseline expectation for a school. Developing skills that I could later use on the DMV and City Hall – that’s a bonus.

  25. The closest term I’ve heard to describe the feelings I had getting to college (not Ivy League or anything) and then making the kind of money I was making after graduating, was… survivor’s guilt.

    The only time I ever saw anything that captured the feeling was watching Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting”. I was no where near as smart as his character was made out to be, but the “why me?” and the questioning whether I deserved it, and the urge to stay where I was, was spot on.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t have Robin Williams as my therapist, so I muddled about for quite some time before coming to terms with a lot of it.

  26. @Rob in CT: I think it works perfectly for the Stroh family and several of the other family business dynasties from the glory days.

  27. Though that isn’t the subject here, there is a corollary thread having to do with cultures as well. After living in an old world, spanish-influenced, island culture as a pre-teen and teen the shift back to the ‘States’ for college was pretty traumatic.

  28. Kilroy and Rob in CT: The British adage for the narrative you’re talking about is, “Clogs to clogs in three generations.” Meaning: the first generation puts in the work and builds up the family fortune to get out of the lower-class footwear; the second generation extends the family fortune; and the third wastes it and returns to the clogs . . . no idea how often it actually happened even in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was a common enough narrative to inspire a cliche.

  29. This is great. It’s nice that you guys know how to write (at least now, Betty).

    This brings back lots of memories, some sad, some happy, few embarrassing (thank goodness).

    My ancestors came fairly recently to this country (around 1900) as farmers or working class people. Luckily they were all smart and hard working. My wife’s family goes back quite a ways, but were still poor and self-educated farmers. My father was the first of this group to complete college, on the GI bill. I was raised lower middle class in a lower middle class neighborhood. But Hey, we didn’t take it personally and generally enjoyed life as it came. In some ways it is more comfortable (more social) than higher classes, at least at that time.

    When I went to college, tuition was dirt cheap. My folks covered the first year and I went on my own from then on, working my way through college. The University of Minnesota, Mpls, is a large campus. Mostly a kid was on his own to try to get through the rat’s maze to get to a degree. I succeeded, with both help and deliberate hindrance, and have mixed feelings as a result.

    Afterwards, I had good employment and succeeded in moving up the technical ladder and to management and the upper half of the middle class. Neither of our children completed college. My son liked to work with his hands, so he went to technical school (Dunwoody), which worked well for him. My daughter dropped out of college first quarter (Madison), it just freaked her out. She is now a writer. ;>)

    As far as the class thing goes, I am basically comfortable at all but the socially upper class levels (we no longer have the clothes nor the house). I do have a reflexive resentment when it appears that much of my presence is to be an admirer of a person’s success. That doesn’t mean I am not happy for them, I just don’t like to be put in that position. Probably because I am reminded I am of a lower status (imagined or not).

    I do have RICH relatives. The ones who worked their way (my parent’s generation) were really nice people and comfortable to be around. They never forgot their roots and didn’t show off their wealth, despite it being obvious. Their children and each subsequent generation, less so. I doubt that I will ever lose the reflex to be angered if someone points out, “I’m special, and you’re not.”

  30. Mary Frances:

    Yup, that’s it. My dad was a Brit, so yeah, that’s the one I heard (well, without the footwear bit. It was basically rags to rags in 3 gens).

    I think it was a cliche without much grounding in reality. The “idle rich” have always been a thing. Some of them may actually succeed in burning through their fortunes, but many seem to manage to both live a decadent life *and* keep (or expand!) their fortunes. Measurements of class mobility appear to indicate that we’ve never really had the mobility that our cultural mythology suggested.

  31. Did you hear this story on This American Life? The part that broke my heart fully was that, even if they were able to get into a school where they could hold their own academically they didn’t even know how to ask for or receive help. There was help but somehow help felt impossible or wrong to them. Up until that part I had all sorts of white knight fantasies about helping but then…I still don’t know what to think or do but I think about it a lot.

  32. John:

    This really struck home with me. Like you and many above, I was the first in my family to attend a four year university (University of Illinois, which while not an “elite” school, is the flagship university for the state). I grew up working-class in a small town in downstate Illinois.

    The college experience was inspirational and enraging in equal measure. I knew from the time I was in junior high that I would be paying my own way through school. I got in through native talent and good teachers in high school, and I stayed in because I would work any job to pay my tuition.

    I flipped burgers, I washed dishes, I delivered pizza. I volunteered for psych experiments for the 5 bucks an hour they would pay.

    And I saw kids from wealthy families literally piss their lives away while I had to fight to just pay the tuition and room and board. It was infuriating.

    I remember a rhetoric class that I took as a prerequisite my freshman year, and the TA asked as a conversational device who we were intolerant of. We went all the way around the table with everyone giving typical nice-person answers “I’m intolerant of intolerance”.


    Until I told the entire class that I resented the hell out of rich people for the opportunities they had and I didn’t. I am not sure if they thought they had a neo-Marxist in their midst, but I got some very strange looks from them.

  33. My parents discouraged me from applying to Ivy schools because, as they put it, the other kids would be heading off to fancy schmancy locations for breaks and I couldn’t afford that. I lived in a small, working class town. Dad was a sheet metal worker and small-business owner and mom was a secretary–but there was so much respect for knowledge around the house (grandfather had little formal education but had started a business, was an anarchist, etc.–and by now anyone who knows me will have identified me) that the working-class origins need an asterisk.

    That said, the challenge I’ve always faced is what to do with what I’ve accomplished. I went to a fabulous small private liberal arts college . . . but had no idea what to do after that, and had no idea how to find any guidance whatsoever. I did temp secretarial work and eventually got a job as a secretary, because I didn’t even know what questions to ask or how to determine what the next step was. Same thing when I finished my Ph.D. (at the U of C, actually; wonder if we were there at the same time?). I’ve ended up doing a lot of bridge-building, too, but there’s a part of me that wonders whether I could have accomplished a whole lot more if I had known how to make connections and if I had felt economically secure enough to take chances.

  34. One of my grandmothers graduated nursing school in 1916 or so; my other grandparents graduated high school but didn’t go to college; I think one of my grandfathers went to a local business school for a year or so. My mom became a nurse but enrolled as an Army Nurse Cadet to pay for school – when WWII ended before she graduated, she ended up going into public health nursing for the state of California instead. My dad enlisted in the Navy and went mustang – after a few months on active duty he ended up enrolled at Annapolis. He probably could not have afforded college otherwise.

    I did pretty well in school, breezing thru most of my classes and graduating with a 3.6 GPA. We had moved to Patrick AFB near Cape Kennedy / Canaveral when I graduated HS. Instead of going to a local community college for two years first, I went to the University of Florida at Gainesville to start with.

    As others here have said they experienced, it was a shock when I got into classes. I had never really learned how to properly study, and as a result I got several less than stellar grades my first year; luckily not enough to get me kicked out. But in HS I had never needed help, and the few times I saw school counselors with questions, hadn’t gotten much useful in return from those counselors. I had no idea of where I could get help, either. I tried going to some tutoring classes (especially for calculus, which I hit – after years of doing pretty well in math in HS – and bounced off of, HARD – so much for my dreams of becoming an astronomer, sigh.) but the TAs who ran the tutoring classes for the most part didn’t seem to be very engaged, and I always got the feeling they were bored and just wanted us undergrads to GO AWAY…

    Luckily there really wasn’t the class differential that others here have faced; UF is mostly a state school with middle class students; it’s a good school but doesn’t have quite the reputation – at least at the undergrad level – to attract the higher classes. I made quite a few friends who today, some 45 years later, are still friends. And I graduated with a B GPA, so I did learn how to study. I still wonder if I would have done better if I’d been able to go to a private school for high school, though; but probably would have been more a matter of which school; some private schools do well at preparing students to succeed in college; others seem to be more interested in status than learning, if that makes any sense. Not that my folks could have afforded a private school, but… I still wonder.

  35. A way to possibly avoid the rags-to-rags scenario is to make sure the 3rd generation knows where the 1st came from. Nothing says, “you got here by a precarious balance of luck and determination–and can fall the same way” like seeing the dirt-floor, sod-roof hovel your grandfather grew up in.

    Also, the stories of the crazy jobs my dad had while working through college and law school.

    It also helps to make the 3rd generation actually work beginning at a young age. I’ve had some form of employment since I was 12 and started babysitting and snow shoveling. My parents never had any fears about putting food on the table or paying the mortgage (or even the private school tuition), but if I wanted discretionary income for comic books or pizza with friends or particular clothes, I had to earn it myself.

    There are 8 grandkids from the immigrant generation, and 7 of us have at least undergrad degrees (several have grad degrees as well). If we go back to rags, it won’t be this generation, anyway.

  36. I did OK at an Ivy League school. I just did not think beyond it. Then graduation was coming up and there was no “next” school, just life. Yeesh. Strangely enough, for a working class kid, I had not thought about a job after college. Probably because university was like “magic” to someone from my background. Who questions magic?

    1) Ivy League Education
    2) ?
    3) Profit–amazing, dream career

  37. “What I did miss, though, because I was ignorant of it, was the many opportunities that were available to me as a college student.” – Marc Criley

    This was my problem, too, though I’ve never really thought of it in quite those terms, so thanks, Marc. My parents were both the first (and only) people in their respective families to go to college, and they also didn’t really have the knowledge to leverage their educational opportunities. They also had a large family, so we were definitely on the very low end of middle class. (My high school friends “took care” of me a lot, too, John.)

    Consequently, though I was smart enough to get into college, I didn’t know enough to really take advantage of it. I certainly wasn’t focused on a career, and I should have been. It took a lot of dead-end jobs and graduate school before I got on a more successful footing. I finally stopped saying “I should have done …” and I went back and DID it.

    Oddly enough, my little sister did the exact same thing. We’re both more “successful” (in financial terms) than our other siblings by a wide margin.

  38. I am a professor (regional state school, lots of first-gen students), and I know to follow up the good news of a student’s interview for a job with “do you have a shirt with buttons?” (and accumulate a collection of them in various sizes to give away) “let’s practice eating lunch at a restaurant” and always go over their cover letters and resumes. There is a code for white collar life, and most of my students were never let in on the secret handshake, so I have to ask them because they will never know to ask me.

  39. Unlike most of the commenters, I was the last in my family to go to college and had plenty of guidance. Unfortunately, most of it was appropriate for Oxford or the Sorbonne or some place about a hundred years ago, so I’m not sure it helped my specific situation. But the attitude that it was taken for granted you went to college and did well certainly made a huge difference. About 75% of succeeding is confidence, and that’s the biggest leg up the elites have.

    (And, yes, I’m a good test case for the role of money. It was an academic family. We had almost none.)

    Then once I in my turn became a university prof, I saw plenty of first-one-to-college students. As John said, and as KIzz so clearly put it, “even if they were able to get into a school where they could hold their own academically they didn’t even know how to ask for or receive help.” That was the one thread that united them all and was the biggest strike against them. You’d never even know they were having trouble (for me, specifically, for instance, all I know is their work in my classes) until you heard from someone that they’d dropped out.

    I think it pretty much makes clear where the help needs to be applied if we really want more diversity among the highly educated of the USA.

  40. @Marion: about 10 years ago, I took a class at the local community college for funsies. The teacher was also a prof at the nearest 4-year state school and taught basically the same thing to juniors for whom it was part of their major — with much more technical detail and a lab section.

    But she said it was always much more fun to teach the 101 level than the 301 level, because the 101 level always came up with more interesting questions and fresher ideas. They hadn’t yet gotten into the groove of specialization. And like your friend said, much less bored about the whole thing.

  41. Bravo, Mr. Scalzi! My father was born and raised in what would now be considered grinding poverty, as distinct from mere ‘Income Inequality’. But I’ve never been either poor or privileged. Quite boring really…

  42. .

    How was “real life” after Harvard?

    Chris Dantzlerward
    59 upvotes by Jaimal Ichharam (Mather House, Class of 2017), Ryan Rodriguez, Daniel Cooney, (more)
    I’ve been out of school for almost a year. Some differences I’ve noticed:

    At Harvard I mostly made friends with people who were in some way smarter than me. This is harder to do now! I can’t assume a social circle of vetted peers will automatically form around me like it did freshman year in Annenberg.

    I work 60-90 hour weeks but it still feels like I have an easy schedule. Everything in the workplace is in my area of interest, and there’s nothing terrifyingly impossible. If I do get stuck, my bosses have a real interest in helping and teaching me. On the other hand, I’m not graded which is a little spooky after getting used to weekly feedback in school.

    I’ll say life after Harvard is both easier and more serious. It’s more free form. Screwups are harder to make, but much more costly.
    Written 14 Sep, 2014. 5,898 views.

  43. Interesting voices in this post. Count me, too, among the first in my family to graduate university (my mother did just one or two semesters), and going from a small Canadian town to an Ivy League school. I was raised middle class, but my parents were born during WWII in England, so had a much rougher background. My experience of being around so much old money (and new money) was fascinating and sometimes disorienting, but most of the time it was just depressingly normal.

    I do find it fascinating how many people can grow up middle class (or better) and yet be so full of resentment, as if they had been horribly wronged by life. But other people can grow up poor, but not have it really “stick” to them. My wife, for example, grew up quite poor. The past is always there for all of us, but some people are better able to move on. I hope that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at empathizing with people who grew up with less than I did.

  44. I just read “My Beloved World”, the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She grew up in extreme poverty in New York City and went to Princeton on a full scholarship then on to law school. It’s an incredibly inspiring story and a great fit for this discussion.

  45. George G – there was something about this sort of stuff in The Conversation today – about how the choice of a private school, once you remove all the various factors like income and family background, doesn’t actually make a huge difference in the academic achievement of students. Indeed, students who went to a public school (in the sense of “publicly funded state school” rather than the British sense of the term) actually turned out to do better in university compared to private school students who had the same university entrance exam set score. The tertiary output tends to run public school student; independent school student; Catholic school student, which really upsets a lot of apple carts.

    Essentially, if you’re a parent with a kid to educate and a marginal budget for this, you really are better off saving the money and sending your kid to a good quality state school than a low quality private school.

  46. I will note here that it is one of the peculiarities of the American education system, at least in my day, that it cost me less personally to attend an Ivy League university than it would have to go to one of the public universities, even my home state flagship, to which I was accepted.

    Being poor and smart does have its (tiny) privileges. Once you get into an Ivy, they do go the extra mile to see you actually arrive. However, I do agree with some of the other comments; unlike many of my fellow students, I did not know how to ask for help and I did not have much of a “home base” to fall back on.

  47. Jonathan Von Post; I would expect that you are being graded, even if it does not seem that way. But I could be wrong.

    You are right to want feedback and the way to get that is to ask for it. This solves two problems: 1) you get the feedback you desire and 2) it makes it easier for your boss to give you that feedback. It will improve your raises and help you grow. Good luck.

    megpie71, I agree. Unless you can really afford a private college, send your kids to a decent public university or even community college (to get used to college). My daughter went to a very good prep-school. It taught her to study, but it didn’t prepare her for a college where she was just one of 30,000 students. For too many students, it’s a sink or swim challenge.

  48. I heard “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves” myself.

    As far as schools go, it may average out between the school and the student. My local public high school was non-challenging to the point where I could read novels in class and get A’s in pretty much everything but PE; as above, when I got to prep school, I had little to no idea how to actually study, and I suspect the same would have been true had I gone to college from the local public high school.

    On the other hand, by the time I got to college, I’d put in enough effort that I didn’t give much of a damn and just majored in English with a minor in drinking and playing video games, so. ;)

    And honestly, I never really cared about purely academic achievement, because why would I? If academic achievement got me something, I’d work for it; if it didn’t, I had other shit to do–see above. I wanted to work in publishing, so I wanted a diploma in English and a decent-on-resume GPA, but I figured most of the classes in the program wouldn’t teach me anything useful–right and wrong, because “bullshit to a deadline” turns out to be a very useful skill, so–and so, save for the classes I liked in their own right, I did what I had to do to get that and not an atom more. Of the prep school kids I know, this is not an unusual attitude, due either to general burnout or to being in the system long enough to become very damn cynical about it.

    I’d recommend *boarding* school in general, as it has certain advantages: greater independence and capacity for self-care, less of the “my parents aren’t here WOOOOOO!” thing freshman year in college, and honestly, as a surly teenager, it’s kind of useful to be ruled by a system that doesn’t give a shit about you personally and that you can’t emotionally manipulate or vice-versa.* Also, you know, exposure to wider world and so forth–which, for a lot of us, translates into “you get away from the place where you grew up, THANK GOD.”

    Day school and purely academic achievement, though, I don’t know about, and I suspect you’re right re: people with limited budgets. (Although, as the child of boarding school faculty and someone who did benefit, I’ll also note that most of the better schools do offer scholarships and financial aid, so if your hypothetical kid loathes his or her local, it might be worth looking into.)

    *I don’t say that I learned to follow the rules so much as that I learned *when* to follow the rules, and how to work around them.

  49. We all have imposter’s syndrome. We all have to learn how to make the world our own… and sometimes you’re well past the collegiate years and STILL feel like an almighty fake… it’s definitely hard to find your tribe.

    What is also not necessarily covered in the piece is how hard the transition between classes is post-college because much of the time people are hemorrhaging money trying to drag the rest of their families up a step, those who didn’t have the benefit of education being a magical door-opener for them… I find these sorts of pieces both heartbreaking and thought-provoking; how much do we owe to where we’ve come from and how much are we meant to pay forward… and pay back?

  50. My parents moved so as to get us into the best public school districts. They thought it was a better use of their money that we live in smaller houses and drive older cars and take fewer vacations and not have designer clothes. Yes, I found this moderately annoying as a child, but that scholarship I got to engineering school was a whole lot more important in the long run than the yearly Disney trips, designer jeans and trendy sneakers I didn’t get, which would be in a landfill by now anyway. I got mouse ears on my own dime.

    So I’m a big proponent of living a little below your means to get your kid into a good middle and high school. Exposing them to a wider variety of people (even in a great district, and the fact that, say, their high school is going to do sports and band against different socioeconomic groups) is also pretty valid. The private schoolers and boarding schoolers didn’t do as well when I went to college than us kids who just went to our neighborhood school, some of whom grew up in *gasp* rented apartments.

  51. “View”isn’t going to change the fact that kids attending elite schools simply will not have the economic means to fully participate. A lower-income student won’t be joining the other more-well-off students at the downtown restaurants after classes, won’t be going to see the Nicki Minaj or the Rolling Stones in concert after graduation, and won’t be driving a new BMW around campus. Heck, a car more than 5 years old is going to draw ridicule and snarky remarks. I work at a large state university, and it’s easy to see the social divisions. The cost of networking and social participation, what you do after class, one of the key experiences of college life, just isn’t covered by scholarships.

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