Get a Job: Working Class Students Discuss the Purpose of College

Article excerpt

This paper is a case study of four, first-generation, working-class, White male freshmen who discuss their perceptions of the purpose of college. These perceptions are analyzed using Chickering's sixth vector, Developing Purpose. The data indicate that working-class students consider college to be primarily a place that prepares them for work, supporting Chickering and Reisser's argument that for large numbers of college students the purpose of college is to qualify them for a good job. However there is no indication that either personal interests or family commitments - the other two elements of the Developing Purpose vector- play a role in these students' college careers.

TJ: I like to work. I hate not working. The only reason I am going to college is to get a job. And I really have never been that into school. But I guess college is a higher priority than UPS.

First-generation, working-class students undergo tremendous personal and cultural transformations as they transition from their working-class culture to the culture of academia. Research focused on first-generation students indicates that they are at a distinct disadvantage concerning access to college, attrition, and degree attainment when compared to their peers (Choy, 2001; Horn & Nunez, 2000), and that these disadvantages exist even after controlling for factors such as educational expectations, academic preparation, parental and school support for college, and family income.

This same research has also shown that working-class students face substantial barriers to earning a college degree, barriers which begin with the college selection process. According to former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich (2000), less than 30% of children from families with income in the bottom quarter enrolled in post-secondary education in this country, a percentage that has been dropping since 1993.

Once enrolled in college, working-class students often find that they do not have the required cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1977) to he successful in college. Children from middle class and upper-income families are more likely to have access to cultural capital and to do better in school as a result (Lareau, 1987). Studies have shown that 43% of students attending post-secondary institutions in the United States are first-generation college students (Nunez, & Cuccaro-Alamin, 1998), and there is a consensus that these numbers will continue to grow as a college degree becomes necessary for more entry-level jobs (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). Because first-generation college students have different characteristics and experiences than the students higher education has traditionally served, they are a group at risk and in need of greater research and administrative attention if they are to survive and succeed in college (Terenzini, Springer, Yaeger, Pascarella, & Nora, 1996).

This paper discusses what first-generation, working-class college students perceive as the purpose of college. The theoretical framework for this paper was Chickering and Reisser's (1993) Vectors of Development. More specifically, the research findings are compared to Chickering's sixth vector, Developing Purpose, as a way to understand how issues of social class impact student development. The data are from a case study of four, first-generation, working-class, White male freshmen that analyzed how these students' first-generation status and social class background affected their college experience.

Developing Purpose

According to Chickering and Reisser (1993), developing purpose involves developing the ability to unify one's many different goals within the scope of a larger, more meaningful purpose. This vector integrates three major elements: (a) vocational plans and aspirations, (b) personal interests, and (c) interpersonal and family commitments. Chickering and Reisser suggest that use of the term "vocational" is not intended to mean a specific job. …

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