Wolfgang Lehmann was the first in his family to attend university. Struggling through his first year, he dropped out, needing to fight his way back – eventually becoming an academic in his roundabout way.
Once in academia, this son of working-class parents – his father a plumber, his mother a letter carrier – started to wonder if socio-economic status plays a role in access to postsecondary education and, perhaps, creates barriers to future success.
“Class is something that fundamentally affects experience. But I would counter argue it’s not necessarily always in a negative kind of way,” Lehmann said. “Students don’t just overcome, but excel by drawing on their working-class background. There’s a lot of research and literature about disadvantage and alienation – about being a fish out of water.
“While that indeed happens, there are also different parts of the story and that’s what I’ve been trying to tell.”
The Sociology professor started his research in 2005 by interviewing 75 first-year university students from working-class backgrounds. For the study, he defined ‘working class’ as a student with parents who did not have a formal university or college education.
Lehmann interviewed his selected students in their first, second and final year at Western and now, a decade later, he is following up with that same group.
“When I first interviewed them, they really didn’t talk about money concerns, rather more of a concern of if they would make it or not,” he said. “I was curious to see how students, who come from that background, sort of carry that uncertainty with them through their university experience.”
Lehmann initially asked questions about why they chose to attend university, what they expected when they got here, what excited them, what worried them and, perhaps most interestingly for this lot, what kinds of pressure they felt being the first in the family to attend university.
All agreed they were at university to “better themselves” – saying their parents wanted them to further their education and do better than them. University was the ticket to achieve that goal.
Lehmann found the students, after first year, did well and their earlier concerns around ability never materialized.
However, finances were always an issue. While some students qualified for OSAP, some did not, as both parents worked just enough to make eligibility difficult. Those students often relied on lines of credit from the banks. On top of that, most worked during the school year, or full-time throughout the summer months, to fund their education.
According to the recently released Report on the Survey of Graduating Students: 2013-14, 10 per cent of Western students depend on some form of personal employment as the largest source of paying their way through school. An additional 42 per cent depend on some form of repayable loans as the largest leading source to nearly 24 per cent of students graduating with more than $35,000 in debt.
Only 40 per cent of students are supported fully by parents.
“A lot of university bursaries tend not to necessarily be needs-based, but achievement-based,” Lehmann said. “To some extent, that could be a way in which universities could look at improving needs-based funding.”
He continued, “Achievement-based awards often reward someone who is already privileged; they look at extracurricular involvement as a factor. But a lot of working-class students cannot achieve that because they have to work. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. You do indeed want to reward merit as well, so I don’t know how you find that balance.”
While a large portion of the students he followed went on to begin successful careers, there were still concerns raised around finding the right networks for employment and internships after graduation. Having to work throughout their time at university, extracurricular achievements were thin.
“Everything else being equal, employers are looking at extracurriculars and lower income students still have the disadvantage because they didn’t have access to those opportunities,” Lehmann said. “They’re (employers) not saying ‘How can we keep the poor kids out?’ They are quite legitimately looking at how can they get the best people.
“And how do we distinguish that? We look at have they volunteered? The intention is not to disadvantage, but that’s what happens. How do you fix that? The first step is to be aware of it and the unintentional consequences of some of these strategies.”
For these students, Lehmann said social class touched every aspect of their university career – from the reason they went to university to career aspirations to how they defined themselves once graduated. “It’s difficult to talk about class,” he said, “because it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking it as an ‘us against them.’”
Nevertheless, sociologists recognize social class as a potential barrier in shaping educational experiences. Lehmann, however, is not arguing every working-class student must “get a shot at the can.”
“My concern,” he continued, “is those who want a shot should get a fair shot.”