Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite College

Cornell University Press, 2016

In 2015, the New York Times reported, “The bright children of janitors and nail salon workers, bus drivers and fast-food cooks may not have grown up with the edifying vacations, museum excursions, daily doses of NPR and prep schools that groom Ivy applicants, but they are coveted candidates for elite campuses.” What happens to academically talented but economically challenged “first-gen” students when they arrive on campus? Class markers aren’t always visible from a distance, but socioeconomic differences permeate campus life—and the inner experiences of students—in real and sometimes unexpected ways. In Class and Campus Life, Elizabeth M. Lee shows how class differences are enacted and negotiated by students, faculty, and administrators at an elite liberal arts college for women located in the Northeast.

Using material from two years of fieldwork and more than 140 interviews with students, faculty, administrators, and alumnae at the pseudonymous Linden College, Lee adds depth to our understanding of inequality in higher education. An essential part of her analysis is to illuminate the ways in which the students’ and the college’s practices interact, rather than evaluating them separately, as seemingly unrelated spheres. She also analyzes underlying moral judgments brought to light through cultural connotations of merit, hard work by individuals, and making it on your own that permeate American higher education. Using students’ own descriptions and understandings of their experiences to illustrate the complexity of these issues, Lee shows how the lived experience of socioeconomic difference is often defined in moral, as well as economic, terms, and that tensions, often unspoken, undermine students’ senses of belonging.


"Class and Campus Life" Table of Contents


1. College Dreams, College Plans

2. “Scholarship Girls”: Creating Community and Diversity on Campus

3. “Are you my friend, or are you classist?”: Confronting and Avoiding Inequality among Peers

4. Activism and Representation: Organizing Class

5. Silence vs. Empowerment: Class Inequality in Formal Settings

6. After College: Class and Mobility


From Reviewers of "Class and Campus Life"

“Social class remains the largest divide and source of inequality within higher education. Whether in terms of enrollment, selectivity, or graduation rates, profound class differences exist. Using qualitative data based on interviews and drawn from ethnographic observation, Elizabeth M. Lee explores the inequalities that exist within the campus community at an elite women’s college, suggesting that class tensions have deleterious consequences on lower-income students and potentially undermine the mission of elite education. Lee’s work is noteworthy for her careful and nuanced approach to the lived experience of social class in this unique setting.”

—Jenny M. Stuber, University of North Florida, author of Inside the College Gates: How Class and Culture Matter in Higher Education

“The social, emotional, and moral dimensions of the difficulties of first-generation and low-income college students are usually ignored, as if the only obstacles were financial and academic. The fact that such students face classism and social obstacles at elite college has rarely been illuminated as well as it is in Class and Campus Life. The quality of Elizabeth M. Lee’s fieldwork is stellar; the students whose stories are vividly presented in this book really trusted her, and the reader can tell that she reflects their sentiments accurately. The longitudinal aspect, reinterviewing informants several years after graduation, is especially impressive. College administrators who take Lee’s findings to heart would find many ways to improve their institutional support of first-generation and low-income students.”

—Betsy Leondar-Wright, author of Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures

“Class and Campus Life by Elizabeth M. Lee is a highly readable, very engaging exploration of an important but often neglected topic: the experiences of low-income, working-class students in elite academic settings. This cost of mobility is well articulated in Lee’s book, which should be essential reading for sociologists studying classed experiences and education scholars interested in the mechanisms of attending elite colleges. Methodologists will enjoy the use of diverse methodological approaches. The book should also be on the required reading list of administrators in higher education who are concerned about issues of diversity on campus.”

—Wolfgang Lehmann, author of Choosing to Labour? School-Work Transitions and Social Class