The Effect of Social Class on Academic Performance in Higher Education

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College is designed to be an academically stressful environment. With students pulling all-nighters to finish papers and cram for exams, it is no surprise that college students rank academics as their greatest stressor (Lim et al., 2014). All students must learn to deal with the academic challenges in order to succeed in college, however, students from lower-class backgrounds face additional challenges that cause them to receive lower grade point averages (GPAs) and drop out more often than their peers from middle- or upper-class backgrounds (Stephens et al., 2018).

It is not family, social pressures or worrying about future careers, but finances that are the second greatest cause of concern for college students. In one study more than one-third of college students reported that finances are traumatic or very difficult to handle. Students from lower- and middle-class backgrounds are even more susceptible to financial anxiety, as their parents often do not make enough money to afford college, causing students to take on student loan debt.

Besides concerns about being able to afford higher education, students of lower-class backgrounds also experience a cultural mismatch because of the difference between the culture they grew up and the norms of colleges (Stephens, 2012). These perceptions of economic inequality and cultural differences create additional stress that leads to worse academic performance. In this paper, the term lower class, also known as working class, is used to define the socio-economic group with the least income.

Since the focus of this paper is on students from lower-class backgrounds, research on minority students is included because of the correlation between race and class. In 2010 40% of black children and more than 33% of Latino children lived in poverty in the United States (Lott et al., 2012). Additionally, they also experience a cultural mismatch, referred to as minority stress. First- generation students tend to come from working-class backgrounds, so research on them is included as well. This literature review aims to examine how college students from lower social class backgrounds face additional challenges that cause negative psychological effects that lead to worsened academic performance.

Additional Sources of Stress for Students from Working-Class Backgrounds


The cost of a college education has risen substantially, even after adjusting for inflation. According to the College Board, the price of tuition was twice as much for four- year private nonprofit universities in the year 2019-2020 than in 1989- 1990 and three times as high for four-year public schools between the same years (College Board, 2019). To afford the rising cost of education students often turn to student loans and after school jobs. The simple feeling of being in debt, the need to repay the loan, and needing to find and work an after-school job all contribute to added stress that can negatively affect academic performance (Lim et al., 2014).

Archuleta and colleagues studied student clients who sought services at their university’s peer financial counseling center by exploring the predicting variables on students’ financial mental health. The purpose was to see how debt, financial satisfaction, financial knowledge, and demographic information influenced financial anxiety.

During the study, students completed a survey about their perception of their financial situation, by rating their personal level of agreement to statements such as, “I feel anxious about my financial situation”, “I have difficulty sleeping because of my financial situation”, “I have difficulty concentrating on my school/or work because of my financial situation”. The authors’ first hypothesis that financial satisfaction is negatively associated with financial anxiety was fully supported, but their second hypothesis, that total debt is positively associated with financial anxiety, was only partially supported in that it was an important factor in predicting financial anxiety but was not statistically significant (Archuleta et al., 2013).

This indicates that how a student feels about their debt in relation to their peers is more influential in creating financial anxiety, than the total debt itself. This means that financial anxiety could be more of a problem for students of working-class backgrounds that go to elite universities as students that go to those are typically from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from working-class backgrounds may worry about not being able to participate in the same activities as their peers from upper-class backgrounds, such as spring break trips or Greek life.

Baker’s and Montalto’s study supported the finding that a student’s perception of their financial situation has a greater impact on their academic performance than their objective student debt (Baker& Montalto, 2019). In their study an online survey was given to a random sample of undergraduate students enrolled at a large public university. Cumulative GPAs were collected the semester prior to taking the survey and one year later.

Students reported whether or not they had a student loan, the amount of student loan debt they expected to have at the time they graduated and their level of agreement to statements which were used to assess financial stress. While post GPA was not significantly impacted by expected student loan debt, average financial stress did have a significant negative association with post GPA, supporting the idea that financial stress is induced by subjective rather than objective factors. As students with more stress had lower GPAs after one year, financial stress may increase students’ cognitive load, reducing their academic engagement and performance. The study also found that first-generation students had lower post GPAs than continuing-generation students (Baker& Montalto, 2019).

This supports the theory that both first generation and working-class students may have more financial stress than middle-class students, which negatively affects them academically. While high amounts of student loan debt are not associated with reduced academic performance among whites, they are among students of color. This is likely a result of students of color reporting more financial stress than white students (Archuleta et al., 2013). This difference in financial stress could be caused by a difference in outlook on debt. White students may see student loan debt as a necessary investment in their future while students of color may be more focused on the short-term consequences and worry if they will be able to pay it off.

Cultural Mismatch

Research has indicated that two common models show how people understand themselves and interact with others: the independent model and the interdependent model of self. In accordance to the independent model of self a “person should influence the context, be separate from others, and act freely on personal motives, goals, and preferences” (Stephens et al., 2018). People ascribing to the interdependent model of self “should adjust to the context of the situation, be connected to others, and respond to the needs of others” (Stephens et al., 2018). While people use both models, a person’s experiences in different social classes may cause a person to favor one model to guide their behavior.

Because of fewer financial resources, greater environmental constraints, lower power and status, and fewer opportunities for choice, influence, and control, people from working-class backgrounds and first-generation students tend to favor an interdependent model of self over those from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. People from middle- and upper- class backgrounds must learn to influence others, challenge the status quo, and develop and express their personal interests because they live in contexts that provide greater access to economic capital, higher power and status, and greater opportunities for choice, influence, and control (Stephens, 2018).

In higher education the independent model of self is prioritized as the ideal. Students are expected to pave their own paths, actively participate in class, and seek out resources. This cultural mismatch between the norms students are accustomed to and the ones at universities can cause students from working-class backgrounds not to perform up to their potential because they do not completely understand what is expected of them. Additionally, middle-class students are more likely to display independent behaviors, such as confidence which can be mistaken for skill, and advocate for themselves in order to gain access to resources, opportunities for advancement, and better grades (Stephens et al., 2018).

One study had first-year students give a five-minute speech about their college goals after reading a welcome letter from “the university’s president.” The letter either focused on independence (i.e. exploring personal interests, expressing ideas, and creating their own intellectual journey), or focused on interdependence (i.e. being part of a community, working and connecting with other students and faculty, and learning from others). First-generation students showed greater percentage increases in cortisol and displayed less positive and more negative emotional reactions when the university culture was presented with independent norms than continuing-generation students (Stephens et al., 2012).

Minority students also experience a similar type of stress in higher education settings. Minority stress are the “unique stresses experienced by minority students that interfere with their college adjustment and integration into the university community” (Wei et al., 2011). Minority students often experience stress because of their perceived invisibility, racial tensions and self-segregation among peers, the model minority myth, low faculty expectations for them because of stereotypes of low intelligence, beliefs that their acceptances were because of their race, and the pressure to prove that they can succeed in school (Wei et al., 2011).

A study conducted at a predominantly White college showed that the college adjustment of ethnic minority students was negatively affected by their increased experiences of discrimination and prejudice. Subsequently, ethnic minority students were more likely to view predominantly White campuses as hostile, unwelcoming, socially isolating and unresponsive to their needs and interests than white students (Wei et al., 2011). Interestingly, African American students experience significantly higher minority stress than Asian American and Latino students (Wei et al., 2011). This could be attributed to the racial history of African Americans as slaves in the United States but is an area for further research.

Zajacova and colleagues studied the relationship between academic self-efficacy and stress on academic performance and retention by having university students answer questions and then analyzing their GPAs and retention rates (Zajacova et al., 2005). The participants first answered demographic questions. The students than ranked tasks (i.e. writing term papers, asking questions in class, and managing both school and work) based on how stressful they found the task and their self-efficacy, how confident they were in their ability to successfully complete it.

The results showed that stress negatively impacted GPA and likelihood of staying enrolled. Cultural mismatch likely decreases academic self-efficacy in lower-class students, specifically first-generation and minority students, by causing them to feel as if they do not belong in an elite university setting. Academic self-efficacy was not only found to increase academic performance but was the single strongest predictor of GPA. However, academic self-efficacy did not significantly effect the likelihood a student remained in school for sophomore year.

This suggests that students drop out for reasons unrelated to their beliefs about being able to handle the academic demands. While decreased academic self-efficacy leads to poorer academic performance, it is not the reason students drop out. This may explain why students from working-class backgrounds have lower retention rates than those from middle- or upper- class backgrounds. Disproving the belief that students from working-class backgrounds drop out because they cannot handle the academics, they actually drop out for other reasons, possibly because of greater financial stress and the experience of cultural or minority mismatch.


One major limitation of studies on this topic is that most only include research on a small subset of students from working-class backgrounds. This failure to include students that are suffering the most from financial stress and cultural mismatch may cause the effects of social class on academic performance to be underestimated. Most research that has been conducted has surveyed students from public universities (i.e. Baker& Montalto, 2019; Zajacova et al., 2005). However, the effects of financial stress and cultural mismatch may be greater at private universities, especially those that are “elite” and predominantly white, as they are more expensive, have students from higher socioeconomic statuses, and create a less diverse campus community. One study reviewed consisted of students who sought services at their university’s peer financial counseling center (i.e. Archuleta et al., 2013).

As mentioned, students that tend to adhere to the independent model of self are more likely to seek out school resources. This means students from working- class backgrounds are less likely to be included in research that is conducted at help centers. Additionally, if a student is experiencing great amounts of stress, they are unlikely to take the time to complete a survey or participate in a long-term research project. The studies also do not include students that have already dropped out of college because of the inability to cope with the factors mentioned. In order to greater understand the experiences of working-class students in higher education, studies should be conducted in a variety of settings.

What Can Be Done To Mitigate Stress for Students

In order to mitigate additional causes of stress faced by minority students, first-generation students, and those from working backgrounds, universities can first aim to create a more diverse environment and culture. This could be accomplished by admitting more students of color at predominantly white colleges, and also those from working-class backgrounds. Additionally, having diverse faculty can decrease stress in students as it gives them someone to look up to and see as a mentor. As “positive, diverse peer interactions and a sense of community have been found to be the strongest predictors of a positive campus racial climate among African American and Asian American students” (Wei et al., 2011), universities should require students to complete a course on diversity. This will decrease racial tensions and self-segregation among students, allowing all to feel respected and welcomed.

To decrease cultural mismatch, universities should incorporate more diverse ideas and practices into their culture. This can be done by emphasizing the importance of students exploring personal interests and creating their own intellectual journey, as well as, being part of a community, and cooperating with peers and faculty. Some researchers had success decreasing cultural mismatch and increasing academic performance by having panelists’ share stories highlighting the importance of their social class background on their educational journey, as opposed to giving standard advice (Stephens et al., 2014).

This could be implemented by colleges during freshman orientation week and expanded to highlight the importance of other aspects of a person’s identity as well. Additionally, universities should explicitly tell students expected norms, rather than assuming students are already accustomed to them, and explain the basis for those norms. Furthermore, universities should actively let all students know about available resources, internships, and scholarships, so that every student has an equal opportunity for success.

Universities should also aim to offer sufficient financial aid to decrease the amount of student loan debt students have and decrease financial stress in students. Universities can also ensure all students with debt have the option to work an on-campus jobs that offers adequate pay. Students would also benefit from on campus financial counseling so that they can better understand student debt, how to pay it off, and how to make smart financial choices.


Simply getting into college is more difficult for students from working-class backgrounds. Once accepted they face additional challenges, such as greater financial stress and cultural mismatch, that interfere with their academics. This causes them to receive lower GPAs and drop out more often than students from middle- or upper-class backgrounds (Stephens et al., 2018). However, universities can take steps to mitigate these additional stressors.

This includes diversifying their culture, offering necessary resources, and making sure all students know these resources are available and how to access them. Considering many of the studies conducted excludes lower-class students that may be experiencing the most amount of stress, the next step in better understanding the effects of social class on academic performance is to include those that have previously been excluded from research.

Cite this paper

The Effect of Social Class on Academic Performance in Higher Education. (2021, Mar 28). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-effect-of-social-class-on-academic-performance-in-higher-education/

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