Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2012

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Rehabilitation and Counselor Education

First Advisor

Liddell, Debora L

First Committee Member

Pascarella, Ernest T

Second Committee Member

Davis, Tracy L

Third Committee Member

Liu, William M

Fourth Committee Member

Paulsen, Michael B


The purpose of this study was to understand how White students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds (operationalized as students who are both low income and of the first generation in their family to attend college) experience and navigate social class during college. This was a qualitative research study employing a phenomenological research methodology. A critical theoretical lens was used to illuminate systemic issues of power and privilege related to social class present in the experiences of these participants. This study was guided by the following research question: How do White, low SES students experience and navigate social class during college? Participants in this study had many similar experiences to one another related to their social class. However, there also existed a variety of individual differences in how students understood and experienced their social class during college. Overall, participants expressed a limited awareness of their social class growing up, but all became keenly aware of it during college. In particular, during college, students became aware of how their own social class differed from the dominant middle class to upper class social class represented on campus. Participants minimized the salience of social class as an aspect of their identity with many of them expressing that they did not want their social class to define them. While participants largely did not feel as if social class was an important aspect of their identity, it became clear through their stories that this aspect of their identity influenced how they viewed themselves, the world around them, and their higher SES peers in college. For example, participants readily acknowledged the frustration and resentment that set them apart from their college peers. The students who participated in this study exhibited ethics of hard work, self-sufficiency, and financial responsibility. These values and attitudes also were evident in students' practices and behaviors (e.g., their judicious spending habits, their long hours working for pay). It also became clear that the long hours most participants in this study worked in order to afford college meant missing out on opportunities for involvement in activities outside of the classroom. Finally, participants' experiences interacting with their high SES peers played a pivotal role in their awareness of their social class during college. Participants were often frustrated by the attitudes, values, and behaviors of their higher SES peers, and for some, these social class differences led to social isolation. Overall, these findings illuminate a variety of issues and areas for concern, directly related to social class, experienced by low-income, first-generation college students in higher education.


College Students, First-Generation College Students, identity development, Low Income College Students, Social Class, social class identity


xiii, 161 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 134-145).


Copyright 2012 Georgianna L. Martin