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“I Belong Because It Wasn’t Made for Me”: Understanding Working-Class Students’ Sense of Belonging on Campus

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Abstract

Sense of belonging has been used to gauge students’ adjustment to and persistence within higher education. Social class is associated with sense of belonging and working-class students report lower levels than their middle- and upper-class peers. In this study, I examined how working-class students described their sense of belonging through a critical constructivist narrative inquiry of 24 working-class students across two public research institutions. I found that students developed academic and co-curricular spaces of connectedness to challenge the broader campus culture that they saw as catering to middle- and upper-class students. The same resources were supportive or unsupportive depending on students’ circumstances. Belonging was viewed as something that students themselves created rather than was facilitated by institutions. Moreover, while participants expressed varying degrees of support, connectedness, and belonging, they rarely felt valued by institutions that exploited their labor or tokenized their presence under the guise of supporting diversity. Implications from this research suggest the need to revisit conceptualizations of sense of belonging while providing recognition of working-class contributions, increasing cultural competence, and developing additional structural supports for students.
Running head: SENSE OF BELONGING
1
“I belong because it wasn't made for me”: Understanding working-class students’ sense of
belonging on campus
Genia M. Bettencourt
University of Southern California
PREPRINT VERSION
For published version, please see:
Bettencourt, G. M. (2021). “I belong because it wasn't made for me”: Understanding working-
class students’ sense of belonging on campus. The Journal of Higher Education.
https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2021.1872288
SENSE OF BELONGING
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I belong because it wasn't made for me”: Understanding working-class
students’ sense of belonging on campus
Sense of belonging has been used to gauge students’ adjustment to and persistence within
higher education. Social class is associated with sense of belonging and working-class
students report a lower sense of belonging than their middle- and upper-class peers. In this
research study, I examined how working-class students described their sense of belonging
through a critical constructivist narrative inquiry research of 24 working-class students
across two public research institutions. I found that students developed academic and co-
curricular spaces of connectedness to challenge the broader campus culture that they saw as
catering to middle- and upper-class students. The same resources could be supportive or
unsupportive depending on students’ circumstances. Belonging was seen as something that
students themselves created rather than was facilitated by institutions. Moreover, while
participants expressed varying degrees of support, connectedness, and belonging, they
rarely felt valued by institutions that exploited their labor or tokenized their presence for
the sake of broader diversity. Implications from this research suggest the need revisit the
concept of sense of belonging while providing recognition of working-class contributions,
increasing cultural competence, and embedding greater structural supports for students.
Keywords: Working-class, college students, sense of belonging, narrative inquiry, classism
SENSE OF BELONGING
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It took me a while to realize that I had worked hard enough to get on this campus.
Especially when I was struggling so hard to make my payments for the first couple of
years, I was very doubtful that I should even be on campus. Do I have the resources to
attend this fancy university? Maybe I should have gone to community college. It
definitely made it harder to feel like this is where I was supposed to be.
In the quote above, Belle described her sense of belonging as a working-class student at
Mountain University (MU), the large public institution she attended. In her narrative, she
described how her social class prevented her from feeling like she belonged on campus because
her presence often felt tenuous. Sense of belonging encapsulates students’ relationships to their
campus community and others on campus through support, connectedness, mattering, value,
respect, and importance (Strayhorn, 2012; 2019). Scholars increasingly have examined sense of
belonging as a key factor in understanding students’ experiences, particularly for students from
marginalized backgrounds (Strayhorn, 2012; 2019; Vaccaro & Newman, 2016). Students’ sense
of belonging has predicted their social and academic adjustment, quality of experience, and
academic performance (Ostrove & Long, 2007).
Within higher education, social class has been strongly related to belonging (Langhout,
Drake, & Rosselli, 2009; Ostrove & Long, 2007). Working-class students experienced a lower
sense of belonging compared to middle- and upper-class peers (Soria & Bultmann, 2014; Soria
& Stebleton, 2013; Soria, Stebleton, & Huesman, 2013). This creates a contradiction for
working-class students where higher education serves as both a social class equalizer (Langhout,
Rosselli, & Feinstein, 2007) and maintains and reinforces stratification (Lott, 2012). Simply put,
the students who are most likely to benefit from a sense of belonging are the least likely to feel
as though they belong.
Sense of belonging is particularly important to understand at public research institutions.
These institutions have an explicit mission to serve their state populations (Jaquette, Curs, &
Posselt, 2016) and enroll more students from low-income backgrounds than their private
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counterparts (Engle & O’Brien, 2007). Compared to private colleges, public research institutions
provided less of a direct class contrast for students from marginalized class backgrounds (Aries
& Seider, 2005), but were sufficiently selective to be associated with improved college
completion and lucrative career opportunities (Shamsuddin, 2016). Thus, public research
institutions are well situated to promote a sense of belonging for working-class students.
This study explored how working-class students described their sense of belonging at
public research institutions. Prior research relied on quantitative data that measured sense of
belonging as a stagnant concept at a single time point. Here, I elaborated on existing scholarship
to understand how working-class students described sense of belonging as a construct and its
nuances across different experiences. Given that social class predicted social relationships, career
opportunities, and quality of life (Lott, 2002; 2012) and belonging mitigated educational
challenges associated with social class (Ostrove & Long, 2007), understanding sense of
belonging for working-class students can promote institutions better equipped to support students
across social class backgrounds. As students from marginalized class backgrounds remain at
high risk of departure without a degree (Cataldi, Bennett, & Chen, 2018), there is a need to foster
inclusive and intentional campus communities that retain working-class students.
Social class on campus
Although there are many ways to conceptualize social class, I used the term working-class to
encapsulate a more comprehensive sense of social class and culture, defined through parental
education and occupation (Hurst, 2010; Stuber, 2011). As social class falls within a system of
classism, defined as “the institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that
assign differential value to people according to their socioeconomic class” (Leondar-Wright &
Yeskel, 2007, p. 314), working-class students have distinctive barriers to obtaining a sense of
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belonging within higher education. To contextualize how working-class students experience a
sense of belonging, I reviewed literature focusing on classed experiences on campus and
expectations of assimilation. Where beneficial to explore shared experiences across
classifications of social class (e.g., first-generation, low-income), I use the phrase students from
marginalized class backgrounds.
Classed experiences
Working-class students traditionally had different experiences than their middle- and upper-class
peers. Class has been highly visible on campus, embedded in clothes, language, health, etiquette,
and cultural references (Hurst, 2010; Sacks, 2007; Stuber, 2006). Working-class students
experienced a clash between the culture of home communities and higher education campuses
(Barratt, 2011), creating a dual transition across education and social class (Reay, David, & Ball,
2005). In some cases, working-class students attempted to blend in with new environments by
using approaches such as class passing (Barratt, 2011).
The chasm between campus and student has been reinforced through differential
opportunities available to students based on their social class. Finite financial resources and time
have limited students’ ability to partake in social activities, such as eating out or travel (Aries,
2013; Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013). In response to potential social opportunities, working-class
students have navigated between feeling excluded, choosing not to pursue relationships, and
trying to pass as middle- or upper-class (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Stuber, 2011). The result
has been that working-class students participated in fewer formal and informal social activities
(Rubin, 2012; Soria & Bultmann, 2014), which has resulted in a lack of social connection,
support networks, isolation, and alienation (Hurst, 2010; Martin & McGee, 2015).
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Students from marginalized class backgrounds also navigated disparate academic
experiences. These students spent less time studying, interacted less with faculty, and completed
fewer credit hours than affluent peers (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004; Soria,
2010; Soria et al., 2013; Walpole, 2007). Obligations including work and family responsibilities
made class attendance challenging (Goldrick-Rab, 2016). Culturally, working-class students
viewed academic accomplishment as an independent endeavor and were less likely to ask for
help (Yee, 2016). Compared to peers, they were not taught to interact with faculty, participate in
courses, or advocate for their needs (Kim & Sax, 2007; Lareau, 2011). Overall, many working-
class students struggled on campus and accessed fewer supports. Such factors created barriers to
sense of belonging for working-class students across their transition to the university, academic
coursework, and co-curricular experiences.
Expectations of assimilation
Due to social and academic barriers, working-class students experienced pressure to assimilate to
middle- and upper-class norms. hooks (2000) described such as assimilation as “the price of the
ticket,” noting that “there was no place in academe for folks from working-class backgrounds
who did not wish to leave the past behind” (p. 37). Students from working-class backgrounds
have viewed college as a path to upward mobility, contrasting with peers for whom higher
education was a time of exploration (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013). Dominant social class
narratives regarding higher education state that social class distinctions and classism do not exist
on campus (e.g., the myth of the universally poor college student), students all become middle-
class, and students all want to become middle-class (Garrison & Liu, 2018). The overwhelming
expectation for working-class students has been that they will abandon their class identity. This
expectation is furthered by definitions of social class, including this study, that measure
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education level as a key component of social class and align four-year college degree attainment
with middle-class categorizations.
Faced with the expectation to adopt more affluent class norms, working-class students
experienced consequences for resisting assimilation. Hurst (2007) found that working-class
students were forced to choose between loyalty to their roots or embracing middle-class cultural
norms. In later research, Hurst (2010) identified three types of working-class students in higher
education. Loyalists resisted assimilation with the middle-class by drawing boundaries and
maintaining loyalty with working-class communities. Renegades associated themselves with the
middle class, viewing their working-class backgrounds with shame and distancing themselves
from home communities. Only double agents navigated both cultural positions to utilize higher
education for a better class position without abandoning their class identity. Scholars have
challenged expectations of assimilation and noted that working-class students took pride in their
backgrounds and desired to maintain that connection (Reay et al., 2005). However, resisting
assimilation resulted in differential access to social benefits, resources, and mobility (Hurst,
2010). Here, I posit that fostering a sense of belonging is one way to challenge expectations of
assimilation and to support working-class students in reconciling their backgrounds with their
postsecondary experiences.
Sense of belonging
Sense of belonging derived from Native American ideologies (Michel, 2014), and formed a core
component of Maslow’s (1970) theory of human motivation. Maslow emphasized that individual
action was driven by progressive needs, widely known as a hierarchy of needs, in which
foundational desires must be addressed for more sophisticated needs to emerge. Initially, unmet
physiological needs such as food, water, and sleep drove need. After these needs were met, a
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focus on safety emerged. After physiological and safety needs were fulfilled, individuals sought
belonging, love, and affection. Subsequent needs included esteem (i.e., achievement, adequacy,
confidence) and ultimately, self-actualization (i.e., fulfilling one’s purpose). For college students
to pursue esteem or self-actualization, they must first develop a sense of belonging.
In higher education, sense of belonging has been connected to Tinto’s (1993) theory of
student departure through the idea that social and academic integration promote retention, more
recently adapted to also include cultural integration (Museus, 2011). Strayhorn (2012) used sense
of belonging to examine the experiences of students within higher education, defined as
“students’ perceived social support on campus, a feeling or sensation of connectedness, the
experience of mattering or feeling cared about, accepted, respected, valued by, and important to
the group (e.g., campus community) or others on campus (e.g., faculty, peers)” (p. 3). Thus,
sense of belonging is an overarching concept thought to encompass multiple constructs (e.g.,
connection, value, respect, support) within its definition. Without belonging, students risk
alienation, marginalization, and isolation on campus.
Strayhorn (2012; 2019) outlined seven core elements of sense of belonging that
contextualize sense of belonging as a basic, ongoing need framed in one’s context. This study
focuses on the fifth element, which examines how social identities shape individuals’ sense of
belonging. Researchers have confirmed that students with marginalized identities experience
sense of belonging differently than peers (Vaccaro & Newman, 2016). Working-class students
have been less likely to feel like they belong in higher education, resulting in diminished
academic and social integration (Ostrove & Long, 2007; Soria & Bultmann, 2014; Soria &
Stebleton, 2013; Soria et al., 2013). The result may be lowered persistence for working-class
populations (Tinto, 1993), hindering their ability to access career and social outcomes. Sense of
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belonging for working-class students has been additionally complicated by the contradictory role
that higher education serves as both a site of social reproduction and a site of social mobility.
Educational pathways and institutions have maintained the status quo by facilitating the success
of middle- and upper-class students while enacting barriers for working-class populations (Lott,
2012). Here, I sought to understand sense of belonging for working-class student populations to
disrupt social reproduction and promote opportunity.
Data and methods
In this study, I explored how working-class students described their sense of belonging at public
research institutions. I used narrative inquiry to explore participants’ stories and to convey their
lived experiences (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007). In narrative inquiry, participants live, retell, and
relive their narratives in conversation with the researcher (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990).
Narratives are bound by time and context (Clandinin & Rosiek, 2007; Josselson, 2007), here the
participants’ year of study, undergraduate institution, and data collection process. The narrative
design is rooted in a critical constructivist paradigm that examines how systems of power frame
individual experience. Here, I studied the “exaggerated role power plays in [knowledge]
construction and validation processes” (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 3) by placing sense of belonging
within the context of social class and classism.
Process and participants
As human interactions are dynamic and varied, narrative inquiry requires flexibility. Josselson
(2007) noted that “most narrative studies are only loosely designed at the outset because
narrative understanding is emergent” (p. 557). I used a modified version of Seidman’s (2014)
multi-interview approach to conduct two semi-structured interviews with each participant. The
first interview focused on students’ class background, while the second focused on their on-
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campus experiences. During the study development phase, I aligned my interview protocol with
my research questions and piloted questions with students and practitioners to ensure its rigor
and appropriateness (Castillo-Montoya, 2016).
While elements of sense of belonging spanned both interviews, specific questions were
localized within the second. To gain a robust understanding of participants’ sense of belonging, I
asked both about their experiences with the overall construct as well as three distinctive elements
encompassed within the definition–support, connection, and value (Strayhorn, 2012; 2019).
Specific questions asked a) How connected do you feel on campus?; b) How supportive do you
feel like [institution] is to students from different class backgrounds?; c) Do you feel like
[institution] values working-class students? Why or why not?; and d) If I asked you if you feel
like you belong at [institution], what would you say? Why?
Mountain University (MU) and Coastal University (CU), two public research universities
in the northeastern United States, served as the sample sites during spring 2018. Prior to data
collection, I met with staff at both campuses that worked with TRIO programs, financial aid,
Dean of Students, and food pantries. Through these meetings, I gained an institutional context
for data collection and analysis. I then recruited a maximum variation of participants,
representing the widest possible range of cases (Patton, 2015). I asked various institutional
gatekeepers, including the aforementioned practitioners and course instructors on topics related
to social class (e.g., Sociology, Education, Anthropology), to share a recruitment email. In
addition, I posted recruitment flyers on each campus. Interested students completed an initial
screening survey before selection.
To ascertain working-class status, I used a modified version of Hurst’s (2010) criteria
focused on parental education and occupation. In the screening survey, participants indicated that
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their parent(s) and guardian(s) did not have a four-year degree and met four of the six following
criteria regarding their occupation: a) job is not salaried; b) job does not require a college degree
or significant professional training; c) job does not include hiring and firing of other workers; d)
job does not involve the administration and organization of others’ work; e) job requires manual
labor; f) job is not considered prestigious). Participants were required to be at least 18 years old,
enrolled as undergraduate students, and sophomores or above. A total of 24 students participated
in the first interview, 15 at MU and 9 at CU, with 20 returning for the second. Interviews lasted
approximately one hour each and occurred two weeks apart on average.
Data analysis
I transcribed all interviews, at which point participants were given pseudonyms and identifying
details removed. During the transcription process, I wrote memos for each participant to promote
critical reflection and gather preliminary analysis (Saldaña, 2016). These memos described
external factors important for understanding findings, such as initial perceptions, participant
details, and the role of institutional entities (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Using these memos
and Strayhorn’s (2012) definition of sense of belonging, I created codes such as the context of
belonging, value of work, and conceptualizations of diversity. After initial coding of the data,
these codes were collapsed into themes (Saldaña, 2016) that both unified central stories and
illuminated disparate voices (Josselson, 2011). For example, several initial codes focused on
different spaces on campus in which participants felt connected spanning academic and co-
curricular offerings. In this stage, those codes were collapsed into one theme titled spaces of
connectedness. Other themes included tokenization of working-class students for diversity,
belonging as resistance, and the dual role of campus resources. Subsequently, I read through the
coded data to consider interaction, continuity, temporality, and situation (Clandinin & Connelly,
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2000). The final findings demonstrate consensus within themes, contradictions in the data, and
connections to theoretical literature (Josselson, 2011).
Data quality and trustworthiness
Sufficiency of data, attention to subjectivity, and reflexivity are widely agreed-upon criteria for
qualitative studies (Morrow, 2005). Sufficiency of data was achieved by using two sample sites
and two interviews per participants, which allowed for comparison across sources. To examine
subjectivity, I used member reflections, data-rich representation, and researcher reflexivity.
Member reflections allowed participants to engage in dialogue during the research process
(Tracy, 2010). In this study, all participants had the opportunity to comment on preliminary
analysis through follow up questions during the interviews and to review interview transcripts (7
agreed). To convey participants’ experiences and context, I used thick description (Geertz, 1973)
and abundant, concrete detail (Bochner, 2000) in sharing individual narratives. I also engaged in
monthly peer debriefing with colleagues from and outside of working-class backgrounds to
discuss my emerging interpretations of the data.
Reflexivity is particularly important in a critical constructivist paradigm as
“understanding the positioning of the researcher in the social web of reality is essential to the
production of rigorous and textured knowledge” (Kincheloe, 2005, p. 120). For researchers
focused on social class, self-reflection shapes how we see evidence, methods, and legitimacy
(McCloud, 2016). I wrote an autoethnography on my experiences with social class and classism
using the prompts provided by Barratt (2011) to address my positionality. This process allowed
me to reflect on my working-class background before beginning data collection in order to be
mindful of the assumptions I was bringing to the study.
Findings
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Four overarching themes captured the ways that participants described their sense of belonging
at public research institutions. The first three focused on the ways that institutions succeeded or
fell short in promoting a sense of belonging for participants on campus: (a) duality within
campus resources that made them supportive or not depending on individual experiences; (b)
spaces of connectedness to counter campus norms; and (c) devaluing of working-class
contributions. The fourth theme described the ways that students themselves created a sense of
belonging outside of institutional measures, focusing on belonging as resistance.
Duality within campus support
Prior research has shown that institutional structures can both support and undermine students’
sense of belonging depending on individual circumstance (Means & Pyne, 2017). Here,
participants described financial assistance and campus resources as having both a positive or
negative impact on their sense of support on campus. The difference was contingent upon
participants’ experiences and identities as well as the context in which the services were utilized.
Financial assistance
During the 2017-2018 academic year, the average total cost of tuition, fees, room, and board for
MU and CU was $30,000. Thus, it is unsurprising that costs came up repeatedly amongst
participants as an indicator of how supportive their institution was to working-class students.
Participants noted that their college education “is really expensive” (Blake), “the tuition rates are
through the freaking roof” (Johann), and “the pure cost of the school, especially for a state
school, is expensive” (Leah). In some cases, costs outside of tuition proved to be most
cumbersome for working-class students, including housing, dining, and parking. These expenses
aligned with middle-class norms in higher education where amenities matched collegiate
expectations of more affluent students, but served as sources of anxiety and frustration for
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working-class students (Hurst, 2010). Participants contrasted the high costs placed on students
with superfluous spending by institutions. At the time of this study, a CU community member
had bequeathed several million dollars to the institution. Instead of using the money for aid or
programs, multiple participants noted that the donation was spent on campus beautification.
Jason expressed participants’ frustration, noting “many of us are freaked out about how much
debt that we're going into to pursue our education [and] having the administration spend a
million dollars on [an object] seems wasteful and unnecessary.”
In other cases, participants described the affordability of public institutions where
financial resources were committed to ensuring students could access higher education.
Universally, MU and CU were selected by participants as more affordable options than their
private counterparts. Blake shared, “I think being a state school is a really big value for the
working-class…I'm getting a great education for the cost [for] the price that I'm paying.” For
others, it was the fact that their financial needs were met by the institution through aid and
assistance. Peter noted,
I received a good amount of financial aid, which I thought was very nice, very helpful. I
did apply to a lot of scholarships. [MU] gives unsubsidized loans. I don't have a co-
signer, so [MU] has helped me through that. The Perkins loan was $4,000 a year, no co-
signer. That helped me a lot.
The availability of financial resources was not stagnant, as individual
circumstances shifted participants’ need. For example, Sam experienced a range of
financial supports and burdens at MU. Although Sam selected MU due to its
affordability, he encountered unforeseen costs during his college experience. Directly
preceding his first semester, Sam’s mother and stepfather divorced. His financial aid
package, based on a dual-income family, no longer covered expenses. Sam was unable to
modify his package, resulting in stress and anxiety:
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[My stepfather] was pretty well-off and it pushed us into a different bracket. And it
ultimately affected my financial aid. Coming into freshman year, they had already
divorced. [Financial aid said] "so both of your parents together make about 100 grand, so
we expect you to pay 30 grand for the school year." When my mom makes 30 grand,
that's not even possible.
During subsequent years, Sam supported his education through jobs as an orientation leader and
Resident Advisor (RA) but continued to face unexpected costs. At the time of our conversations,
he was on the eve of graduation and grappling with the financial burden of securing his nursing
license. The constant barrage of expenses not only created perceptions of an unsupportive
financial climate on campus, but of an institution ill-prepared to support working-class students.
Campus resources
Where resources existed, institutional classism created barriers regarding access for working-
class students (Lott, 2012). Perhaps most clearly in need of institutional support were students
like Sam and Jaslene, who encountered substantial challenges related to their academic success
and within-college support but only experienced institutional outreach after significantly
struggling. After her GPA fell to a 0.8 during her transition to MU, Jaslene met with a Dean in
her college. She shared,
You have to first get a bad GPA to get connected to that person. If it wasn’t for that, I
wouldn’t have known nothing. I wouldn’t have none of the connections. For an entire
year, why didn’t I? I went to class, I walked on campus. I ate in the dining hall. I had an
RA. Why didn’t I know about the resources?
One explanation could be that existing resources catered to middle- and upper- class college
students and failed to demonstrate the cultural competency needed to support the working-class
(Museus, Yi, & Saelau, 2017). Lydia, who became independent at age 18, often found her
experiences overlooked on campus where faculty and administrators normalized “traditional
college students. She shared one instance of “a recent lecture that we were learning about
insurance and the professor that was presenting said, ‘oh, most of you are probably on your
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parents' insurance.’ And I'm on [state insurance].” Lydia did not have support from her family
and felt her background was stigmatized through such statements, making her feel isolated.
Perceptions of inaccessibility were compounded by other identities that participants held.
Students of Color navigated issues of race and racism at the Predominantly White Institutions
(PWIs) of MU and CU. For campus resources to be perceived as accessible, they needed to
demonstrate culturally competent support that engaged social class alongside other marginalized
identities participants held. Jaslene, a Student of Color, voiced her frustration that existing
resources catered to majority populations:
I feel like there are resources to help us, but I just don't feel like it's the same support that
other people get, like White people for example. Or middle class or rich. It's just not the
same. Maybe it's because they don't need much support. [MU administrators] don't want
to invest their time and energy and resources into the people that need it.
The amplified impact of confronting multiple systems of oppression resulted in working-class
students feeling further isolated from and erased by their institutions, emphasizing the need for
an intersectional approach within campus practices (Crenshaw, 1989).
Spaces of connectedness
Working-class participants often felt a disconnect with the broader student culture at public
research institutions, where they perceived peers as focused on leisure activities with few
financial or academic concerns (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013). Johann described, “a sign of
class is what [students] complain about…I complain about having to work or financial aid,
paying for school. Whereas someone that's higher class doesn’t have to worry.” While many
participants felt a disconnect from the broader campus culture due to their working-class
background, this sense was heightened for students from non-traditional college pathways (e.g.,
working before enrollment, transferring across institutions). Although participants were
comparable in age to traditional college students (i.e., 18 to 25), prior life experience created a
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different sense of maturity and perspective. Jane noted, “I'm 23 and these kids are sitting next to
me are 19 and shot-gunning beers...I feel like they don't have any sense of responsibility.” Lydia
agreed, sharing that “sometimes I do feel older because they'll mostly be like, ‘oh, I went out
partying’ and it seems like that's all they care about.” Though working-class participants might
be interested in attending social events with peers, they did so largely after renegotiating other
priorities and responsibilities.
Holding other marginalized identities also amplified participants’ questions about
connectedness. Students of Color consistently felt disconnected from campus based on both race
and class. Jaslene felt, “there's too many people that are too different than me and they can't
relate to what I go through. They can't relate to my experiences.” In contrast, Carrie was able to
fit in easily at CU due to its high population of White students. As she described, “I can
understand that that also comes from a sense privilege as well. I think being a White student on a
predominantly white campus also helps.” To address the discrepancy, participants developed
spaces of connectedness through academics and co-curricular activities. These smaller spaces
were transformative for students such as Jamie, who noted that “having the ability to find my
own little group has made me feel more welcome at [Mountain University] because I know
students who never found that space.”
Academic
Participants described academic spaces of connection as those that offered opportunities to
connect with other working-class peers and to share their values. Though participants did not
seek out specific majors to meet other working-class students, a positive byproduct was their
appeal to similar students. Guillame noted that his major, Animal Science, “has some of the
highest percentages of first-gen students and low-income students on campus, which makes
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sense because a lot of people may come from communities that are agricultural communities.”
Anna switched from Dance and Psychology into Women’s Studies, noting that the community in
the latter exposed her to “more people that identify closer to me.” While not every major was
represented in this study, participants spanned business, science and math, social sciences, and
humanities.
In other cases, participants noted academic majors or courses that emphasized what they
saw as working-class values, such as a strong work ethic and commitment to social justice. Blake
highlighted the work ethic shared by other students in her Hospitality major:
I have noticed many people with similar backgrounds as me are [hospitality] majors.
Which I think is interesting because we’re embarking on a career of service and work for
other people. I think that has something to do with our social class backgrounds and our
work ethic in the ability to serve and help others.
Blake described the Hospitality major as an oasis within the business school, which focused
purely on profit. Other majors centered social justice principles. Jamie saw Public Health as
attracting students interested in working towards social change, as “the whole point is to help
close that inequality gap, whether that's social or health.” Inversely, academic majors that
participants felt should incorporate working-class values but did not often created a disconnect.
Sam, a Nursing major, was frustrated by the failure of his program to center cultural competency.
He shared an example of his program requesting philanthropic donations from seniors at a time
when many students were struggling to pay for their nursing exams. Thus, while shared values
could create spaces of connection, academic spaces that tokenized students illuminated the
contradiction between the working-class and campus culture.
Co-curricular
Participants used co-curricular involvement to build connections that indirectly included social
class, to share passions around work and work ethic, and, in some selective cases, to directly
SENSE OF BELONGING
19
challenge inequity on campus. These experiences included on-campus jobs and internship
experiences as well as leadership roles, though paying positions were central. In most cases,
participants worked multiple jobs to earn money. The most valuable positions on campus
provided students with a leadership role and a paycheck. For example, Lauren took a job with the
student government at MU. She shared an example of how the job allowed her to engage in
conversations about social class during a recent negotiation of campus meal plan costs:
By having friends who were working on this, I could hear firsthand what administrators
were saying, “this is so we can give a living wage to these workers and support our
student workers.” I feel like I get a different perspective on issues.
However, payment alone did not ensure connectedness. Despite serving as a summer orientation
leader and RA, Sam often felt that he was involved out of financial necessity rather than choice.
As he stated, “I haven't been able to get involved because I've just been so stressed … [I had a]
personal realization that I wish I'd gotten involved in a bunch of different things.” The
incorporation of financial stability as a starting, not culminating, point within co-curricular
opportunities connects to Maslow’s (1970) framework that students need to address basic needs
(e.g., housing, food, tuition) before being able to pursue belonging.
In some cases, intersectional spaces included social class within a focus on other
identities (e.g., multicultural organizations or Greek Life). Jamie described feeling supported by
her Asian American fraternity that often made sure to share food with one another; “Someone
will be like, ‘Can someone get me food before the meeting?’ Or they’ll be like, ‘I have extra this,
anyone want it?’ Food is a really big part in social class.” Alternatively, Roland described the
Veteran’s Center as a space that addressed multiple needs on campus as “most [veterans] are
first-generation college students, so it's a pretty dramatically different population than other
people.” These spaces tended to be particularly salient for participants as they connected across
multiple shared experiences.
SENSE OF BELONGING
20
Unsurprisingly, there were few spaces where students engaged in conversations about
social class directly. Five participants at CU had been in Upward Bound and had some lingering
connections to the program. However, as the program took place in high school, these
connections were less visible for college students. Similarly, although there were efforts for first-
generation organizations at both campuses, both were new at the time of this study. It was
unclear if a first-generation organization would be able to capture the more holistic and salient
elements of social class (Nguyen & Nguyen, 2018). Thus, while working-class participants
found spaced of connectedness through shared backgrounds or values, the onus was largely on
the students to center their social class rather than having existing institutional spaces.
Devaluing Working-Class Contributions
Overall, participants felt that their institutions placed very little value on the experiences and
strengths of working-class students. Instead, institutions used working-class students to achieve
key goals (e.g., diversity, work) without articulating a corresponding value of the students
themselves. As a result, working-class students’ sometimes felt their contributions devalued and
their presence tokenized across MU and CU.
Diversity
Participants saw their presence as aligned with the goals of their institutions to support and
promote college access for in-state populations. It was widely stated the both MU and CU
benefitted from perceptions of being more accessible for working-class students. Blake captured
this by noting that, “it looks great when [MU] has lots of first-generation college students or lots
of working-class students that come to this school and graduate.” Leah described this as “more
just for show and as a facade” with students being “valued for statistics.” Guillame believed that
having working-class students at MU was “a very strategic thing,” rooted in the fact that “it
SENSE OF BELONGING
21
looks better for them.” These views echoed scholarship finding that institutions place greater
value on general concepts of diversity than a commitment to social justice (Warikoo, 2016).
While numbers of working-class students might be valuable statistics, their experiences
on campus were largely ignored. As Sam described:
That’s something [administrators] value or at least say that they value…I think that they
value [working-class students] but aren't being prudent about making them feel valued.
The actions aren't congruent with the words or the rhetoric, other than they use very
strong rhetoric supporting diversity and inclusion. I just don't see it. I didn't feel valued in
that identity, identifying as working-class.
Existing social class diversity was also predicated on the presence of full-paying students, with
Lauren noting that “value is a little bit contingent on having students that aren’t from working-
class backgrounds, for subsidizing in-state tuition and scholarships.” Participants felt tokenized
regarding their working-class status rather than valued for the assets they brought to campus.
Labor
Participants also described the tension between their value as working-class students and the
importance of their labor on campus. Several participants, predominantly at MU, shared that the
campus relied upon their work to function. Jamie described:
I just know that people are surprised when they come to campus and they see students are
the ones at the registers, the ones driving the buses. Especially freshmen coming in, they
don't realize how much students play a role in keeping the university functioning. We're
in the administration offices, we’re the ones picking up the phone, working in financial
aid offices.
Even though this work was fundamental to the university, it rarely was treated with
corresponding respect. Instead, several participants described the potential for their labor to be
exploited due to their precarious financial status. As Peter noted:
I feel like [MU employers] more exploit [working-class students]. They give them
student jobs paying minimum wage, but it is a decent job, they're flexible. But at the end
of the day, if you are lower class and you need a job, there's really not much around here
for more than minimum wage. They could probably afford to pay people $13, $14 an
hour. But because students who need jobs are going to take whatever, they can exploit
that a little.
SENSE OF BELONGING
22
These examples emphasize a disconnect between campus employers’ ability to capitalize on the
work ethic associated with working-class upbringing and participants’ pride in their work
without rewarding that labor with corresponding financial payment. The discrepancy reinforced a
barrier for working-class students’ belonging on campus.
Belonging as resistance
In reviewing support, connection, and value above, participants described things that their
institutions did that helped or hindered students’ sense of belonging. However, when asked about
their sense of belonging, several participants described shaping a positive experience through
their efforts. Rather than being something that the institution actively fostered, sense of
belonging became a measure of individual resilience and capability. As Guillame described, "I
feel like because universities were made for wealthy people to continue elitism and wealth, being
here is a resistance.” He went to say, “I belong because it wasn't made for me. I belong here
because I'm here to change something.” Guillame had a sense of belonging not because MU
provided an inclusive environment, but because he was committed to being a change agent.
Moreover, for students like Guillame sense of belonging formed resistance capital (Yosso, 2005)
that helped to challenge classism within higher education and to affirm their presence on
campus.
Working-class students drew upon many of the strengths they associated with their social
class backgrounds–work ethic, maturity, resourcefulness–to create this sense of belonging. Jamie
described her sense of belonging as something that she had earned:
I don't think people realize the amount of work I put in or other people put in to get the
amount of social capital that we might have gotten or cultural capital isn't because of our
parents' background or their connections to other people. I've been working since I was
16, but through that I managed to meet a lot of people through work and then
volunteering helped me get connected to the community and to meet people.
SENSE OF BELONGING
23
For working-class students, the trade-offs of depersonalized large public research institutions
were numerous opportunities. Peter shared that “coming here was perfect rather than going to a
school with less majors, less opportunities.” Public research institutions were seen as hubs of
opportunities that allowed working-class students to pursue social mobility (Armstrong &
Hamilton, 2013; Hurst, 2010).
Finally, several students described their sense of belonging as tied to gratitude. Despite
the many obstacles he encountered, Sam shared that, “I belong as just a person in general
because I feel like this is a great place with lots of opportunities and people come from all over
and have different life experiences and I see that.” For students who often faced substantial
challenges to access higher education, being on campus invoked a sense of perspective and
gratitude that helped foster a sense of belonging. This was particularly true for seniors who
participated in the study on the eve of graduation and used the interviews to reflect on their
experiences, such as Blake:
I was thinking about that all the people that I'm close to in my life value work. So, I also
surrounded myself with people who share those values. And found spaces also where
they’re valued. I was like, “all the people close to me are such hard workers and I admire
them.” I didn't realize it until after we had spoken.
Perhaps because their presence on campus was not a given, gratitude for opportunities and
experiences led to a sense of belonging for many.
Discussion
The participants in this study describe a dynamic and complex sense of belonging that is
contingent on a myriad of factors–context, timing, other identities. This study both affirms and
elaborates on quantitative studies related to barriers to working-class students’ sense of
belonging (Soria & Bultmann, 2014; Soria & Stebleton, 2013; Soria et al., 2013). Importantly,
instead of a measure that can be fully captured within a single data point, sense of belonging is
SENSE OF BELONGING
24
not stagnant (Means & Pyne, 2017; Strayhorn, 2012; 2019). Support, value, and connection are
encompassed within the definition of sense of belonging (Strayhorn, 2012; 2019). In this study, I
asked participants individually about these concepts as well as their overall sense of belonging.
Our interviews showed that when asked about different constructs separately, participants
responded differently. Students felt partially connected and supported, but rarely valued on
campus. Belonging was something individuals achieved themselves, rather than facilitated by the
institution. The cumulative impact demonstrates that research on sense of belonging yields rich
insights into student experiences, but that the theoretical framework is nuanced and complex.
Working-class participants were largely able to meet their physiological needs and
security needs (Maslow, 1970), but this ability was often tenuous. Several participants suggested
that it was a struggle to attend each semester. Many working-class students struggle with tuition
costs, family expenses, and food and housing insecurity (Goldrick-Rab, 2016), which can lead to
lesser feelings of belonging (Ostrove, Stewart, & Curtin, 2011). The fluid nature of social class
and academic billing cycles meant that participants constantly thought about future expenses,
subsequently backgrounding belonging to more basic needs in times of financial strife. For
example, one participant was unsure if she could continue at MU the subsequent year, which
nullified the sense of belonging she achieved by questioning her physical presence on campus.
The nebulous financial balance for working-class students had clear implications for students
who saw institutional resources as both a support and a hindrance.
Participants in this study recognized an espoused commitment to diversity at the
institutional level (Warikoo, 2016), but saw actual measures on campus as disregarding the
presence of working-class students. There is an important tension to note between how students
see their working-class background as an asset to themselves and the institution (Martin, 2015;
SENSE OF BELONGING
25
Stuber, 2006) and institutions do not. The contradiction was amplified by what participants saw
as the dominant peer culture on campus, led by middle- and upper-class students able to
prioritize leisure and fund their lifestyle through familial resources (Armstrong & Hamilton,
2013). Though public research institutions inhabit a unique position to champion working-class
students, they often reinforce a focus on middle-class values (Hurst, 2010).
Traditional narratives frame the purpose of higher education as a tool for class mobility
(Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Langout et al., 2007). The trade-off is often seen as erasing one’s
own social class identity (hooks, 2000; Hurst, 2010). While the pressure to assimilate existed at
both MU and CU, participants saw benefits in their background related to work ethic,
resourcefulness, maturity, and commitments to social change and worked to retain those
elements. This study echoes past research that showed that “although lower-income students did
take on aspects of middle-class culture, parts of their class backgrounds remained firmly rooted
in their identities and were affirmed with pride” (Aries & Seider, 2005, p. 436). Here,
participants were not passive recipients of inclusive campus communities that bestowed upon
them a sense of belonging. Instead, they actively navigated within higher education to create
sense of belonging by seeking out connection, drawing upon work ethic and resilience, and
embracing gratitude. It is also possible that other working-class students would respond
differently, as the sampling strategy drew upon participants likely to be more engaged in
conversations about social class and more involved on campus.
Nonetheless, participants often challenged social reproduction to persist within higher
education and access aspects of social mobility (e.g., academic credentialing) without
assimilation. Many sought financial stability associated with a college degree but countered
pressures to abandon their working-class upbringing. In this way, most participants were aligned
SENSE OF BELONGING
26
with the double agents identified by Hurst (2010) who used higher education as a tool without
abandoning their working-class upbringing. The paths of working-class participants here counter
erasure and stigma to view social class in positive, asset-based lenses. Beneficial traits deriving
from one’s social class contributed to belonging on campus by helping participants to find spaces
that aligned with their goals and to benefit from resources. Moreover, their sheer presence
countered embedded classism and challenged the erasure of diverse social class experiences.
Finally, the impact of social class alongside other marginalized identities results in a
compounded set of barriers to achieving sense of belonging through intersectionality (Crenshaw,
1989). By exploring how working-class students’ many identities shape their sense of belonging,
I extended prior research on the experiences of students from marginalized social class
backgrounds through homogenous racial groups (Aries, 2013; Martin, 2015). The resultant
findings show that holding multiple marginalized identities can amplify challenges to students’
sense of belonging beyond having a singular marginalized identity alone (Vaccaro & Newman,
2016). Students of color navigated classism and racism that made them much less likely to feel
as supported or connected. Not only do institutional resources lack cultural competency to
support students (Museus et al., 2017), but this deficit is amplified for students with multiple
marginalized identities. As a result, not only is it important to complicate and investigate sense
of belonging broadly and concerning social class specifically, but it is necessary to further draw
upon intersectional frameworks to understand students’ experiences.
Implications
As increasing sense of belonging impacts achievement and retention for students (Strayhorn,
2012; 2019), implications from this research span practice, policy, and research. While higher
education scholars describe sense of belonging as something that educators can foster
SENSE OF BELONGING
27
(Strayhorn, 2012; 2019), working-class students largely saw sense of belonging as a concept
rooted in their assets. They drew upon the traits that they associated with their class
backgrounds, such as work ethic, resourcefulness, and maturity (Stuber, 2006; Martin, 2015), to
develop belonging on campus. Resultantly, one implication for practice is to create opportunities
to publicly recognize the labor of working-class students and their contributions, both historical
and contemporary. For example, when sharing key institutional figures in marketing materials,
campus admissions offices could share statistics related to the number of students working on
campus. Alternatively, individual offices could recognize the impact of student labor in helping
the office achieve goals through appreciation programs. Such public attention would challenge a
sense that class diversity is tokenized or exploited rather than genuinely valued.
A second implication for practice is to promote culturally engaging campus environments
(Museus et al., 2017) by educating various stakeholders on issues of social class and classism.
This study is clear that even when campus resources exist, they are often seen as unwelcoming or
inaccessible to working-class students. The gap widens as students hold additional marginalized
identities. Formal mechanisms to embed a greater class consciousness into institutional resources
include providing information about financial insecurity as a part of student orientation, offering
alternatives to purchasing course materials, and advertising financial assistance alongside co-
curricular opportunities (e.g., study abroad, unpaid internships). Additionally, institutions should
offer professional development opportunities for faculty and staff to develop cultural
competency and align such participation with traditional measures of recognition (e.g., tenure
and promotion, performance reviews).
As many working-class students are largely connected to financial aid on campus, one
implication for state and federal policymakers could be to add additional requirements to existing
SENSE OF BELONGING
28
funding mechanisms. For example, as a condition of receiving grant aid, working-class students
could be required to meet with a financial aid officer. Such measures, though creating additional
time commitments, would provide an individualized connection should students’ financial
circumstances change to help navigate questions and concerns. These meetings could also
address barriers such as food or residential instability that students may experience (Goldrick-
Rab, 2016). Public research institutions may be ripe to pilot these initiatives. For example, the
University of California (UC) system moved to a comprehensive review admissions process in
2001 to address barriers to access for marginalized populations (Sacks, 2007). The UC campuses
are now recognized as highly successful in terms of access and retention for students across
social class backgrounds.
Further research is needed to examine how to develop cross-class awareness with middle-
and upper-class students. While prior research has shown within-group (Maramba & Museus,
2013) and cross-group (Strayhorn, 2008; Strayhorn, Bie, Dorime-Williams, & Williams, 2016)
racial contact to have significant impacts on sense of belonging, to date no research explored
similar themes regarding social class. Such research is additionally complicated by the limited
nature of cross-class relationships (Lott, 2002), predicated on the fact that many affluent
individuals “are largely insulated from and do not know poor people” (Lott, 2002, p. 102).
Future research can explore how students with class privilege understand social class and how
students build connections across social class groups. Future research may also examine sense of
belonging across institutional types such as community colleges or elite private institutions.
SENSE OF BELONGING
29
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... Though the percentage of college students from families in poverty increased from 12 to 20% between 1996 and 2016 in the United States (Pew Research Center, 2019), middle class assumptions continue to dominate college education (Garrison & Liu, 2018;Lee & Harris, 2020). These assumptions are expressed by a limited awareness of social class diversity, the myth of middle-class universality, and the marginalization of lifestyles, such as working to pay bills and tuition, managing non-academic responsibilities, and practicing frugality (Bettencourt, 2021;Lee & Harris, 2020). Researchers have also identified obstacles that under-resourced students face, including higher levels of perceived cultural mismatch, lower graduation rates, a diminished sense of belonging, decreased college satisfaction, and aggregated academic anxiety (Bettencourt, 2021;Janke et al., 2017;Stephens et al., 2012). ...
... These assumptions are expressed by a limited awareness of social class diversity, the myth of middle-class universality, and the marginalization of lifestyles, such as working to pay bills and tuition, managing non-academic responsibilities, and practicing frugality (Bettencourt, 2021;Lee & Harris, 2020). Researchers have also identified obstacles that under-resourced students face, including higher levels of perceived cultural mismatch, lower graduation rates, a diminished sense of belonging, decreased college satisfaction, and aggregated academic anxiety (Bettencourt, 2021;Janke et al., 2017;Stephens et al., 2012). ...
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Social and academic integration variables have shown to be relevant for the understanding of university dropout. However, there is less evidence regarding the influence of these variables on dropout intention, as well as predictive models that explain their relationships. Improvements in this topic become relevant considering that dropout intention stands as a useful measure to anticipate and intervene on this phenomenon. The objective of the present study was to evaluate a predictive model for the university dropout intention that considers the relationships between social and academic variables, during the first university semester of 2020. The research was carried out using a cross-sectional associative-predictive design, with a convenience sampling (n=711) due the restrictions of pandemic period. The results showed a good fit of the proposed hypothetical model that explains 38.7% of dropout intention. Both social support and perceived social isolation predicted the sense of belonging, and through it, engagement. Previous academic performance predicted early academic performance, and through it, engagement. The set of variables predicted the intention to quit, through engagement. These results are a contribution both to the understanding of the phenomenon and to guide potential interventions in the early stages of the university experience.
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