Special Topic: Issues of SES in Higher Education

Socioeconomic Status and Higher Education Adjustment

SES and familial stress may work against adjustment to higher education.

By LaNiña Mompremier, MA

During the 2008 APA Convention in Boston, a graduate student commented on her struggle adjusting to graduate school because of her perceived differences in economic and social position between her background and her classmate’s backgrounds. She shared her discomfort interacting with peers, her inability to relate to conversations, and the stress she experienced from family members unable to conceptualize the sacrifices she was making to succeed. Although this student’s experience is common, the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) on higher education adjustment has received little attention.

Higher education attrition has been linked to satisfaction, race/ethnicity, socialization, as well as SES (Ellis, 2008; Agliata; Renk, 2008; Gerdes, Mallinckrodt 1994). Research shows that low SES undergraduate students are less likely to complete 4 years of college or university education (Titus, 2006). Although little research is available on factors related to graduate school attrition, attrition rates as high as 50% for doctoral students in any discipline within the United States have been reported (Gardner, 2008; Smith, Maroney, Nelson, Abel, & Abel, 2006).

Research indicates that family socioeconomic characteristics such as income and parental education are important variables for measuring college attrition (Ishitani, 2003). First-generation college students are 51% less likely to graduate in 4 years (Ishitani, 2006). These students are more likely to be from low SES families and less likely to have the academic preparation and resources available to higher SES students. (Cho, Lee, Hudley, Barry, & Kelly, 2008; Ellis, 2001).

Little research is available to determine if SES is a significant factor for students finding it difficult to transition and fully integrate into their academic community. For instance in her book, Dr. Heather Bullock discusses the discomfort she experienced in college while interacting with those of different SES backgrounds (Lott & Bullock, 2007). Similarly, students from low SES families may experience discomfort or awkwardness interacting with their higher SES peers, and may hold negative beliefs about higher SES peers. Higher SES peers may be used to certain levels of material comfort, may have differing values, or may hold negative beliefs about lower SES individuals. Higher SES students may also experience discomfort or awkwardness sharing their higher status with lower SES peers for fear of being perceived as elitist.

SES and familial stress may work against adjustment to higher education. As the student at the APA convention shared, seeking higher education may ostracize students from family members with less education and leave the student with less familial support. Supportive families with less educational experience may not fully appreciate the level of work necessary for academic success. In addition, students from both SES extremes may feel pressure to excel in order not to disappoint parents who may be expecting their child to fulfill a family legacy or who may be hoping to benefit from the increased financial support that higher education may afford.

Factors related to income can also influence a student’s adjustment to higher education. The demands of long graduate school programs often do not allow for full-time employment. Many graduate students forgo higher paying jobs to work as students assistant while in school. Students who must work while in school may have few opportunities to bond with peers. Unable to forgo summer employment, some students miss opportunities to train at unpaid internship sites. Similarly, many students may also be stressed by the financial burden their educational pursuits places on their families. Programs that do not provide sufficient financial support (tuition waivers, stipends, grants) to students may leave them vulnerable to a difficult adjustment and dropout. Research indicates that financial support helps significantly, lower dropout rates have been observed in college students who receive sufficient financial aid (Ishitani, 2003).

The deteriorating climate of the American economy may produce an extra challenge to persons with low income who pursue a higher degree. With attrition rates already at an estimated 50% for doctoral students, it is important that more research be conducted to identify ways of reducing the negative impact of SES on higher educational adjustment.