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Ryan Pickering

Darren Bernal


Critical citizenship within higher education: Challenging a system which we uphold

Dr. Ryan M. Pickering and Dr. Darren R. Bernal

Historically, higher education has been an institution of oppression and of selective opportunity. Not only have institutions of higher education historically limited access to women and people of color, it has and does limit access for individuals who cannot afford the growing sticker price. Although higher education is often seen as a mechanism for upward social mobility, and perhaps historically has been one of the most viable options, it mostly maintains current class structures across generations (Armstrong & Hamilton, 2013; Fine & Burns, 2003). Education’s role in social mobility faces new hindrances including the burgeoning cost of education, reduction in education funding (Pew Charitable Trust, 2016), and the student debt crisis (Fry, 2014).

As Drs. Bernal and Pickering take the helm as chair and vice chair of APA’s Committee on Socioeconomic Status (CSES), we see the visibility of social class in higher education is an important, yet challenging, responsibility. However, being passionate about both higher education and challenging systems of oppression often creates dissonance and tension. Through CSES, articles, textbooks, conference discussion sessions, and the (recently updated) Resources for the Inclusion of Social Class in Psychology Curricula we, and many others, have worked to make social class more visible in and beyond the classroom.

Still, discussing social class can be met with reluctance and anxiety. It is often frowned upon by individuals from wealthy backgrounds, and is often embarrassing and stressful for individuals from lower-status backgrounds (Lott & Bullock, 2007). Most individuals from lower-SES backgrounds are also sensitive to and aware of the negative stigma associated with their lower status (Johnson, Richeson, & Finkel, 2011) and are therefore motivated to conceal social class to avoid negative consequences. Moreover, large parts of American society and many individuals within higher education trust and reinforce meritocracy, believing their hard work within it will or has led to their success. This leads to higher levels of classism for individuals with higher levels of education (Brantlinger, 2003; Jackman & Muha, 1984). The reluctance to face these issues can make teaching social class, and outing one’s own social class (background), difficult. We also believe doing so can be incredibly rewarding, impactful, and important. As social mobility and trust in higher education wavers in the United States, we will need informed citizens to face current challenges and those to come. Many of our students and colleagues work and interact with individuals diverse in social class (background) daily, and we believe that continuing the conversation in the open can help reduce the anxiety, shame, confusion, and classism that exists within higher education and society. 

As Langhout, Drake, and Rosselli (2009) argue, “Institutions of higher education must…address issues of classism and implement policies to ensure the academy’s climate is welcoming for all students, including working class and working poor students” (p. 177). Their policy suggestions range from hiring visible role models (i.e., faculty and staff from lower-SES backgrounds) to creating a social class studies department at institutions of higher education. For us, we urge individuals within higher education to take action to remediate issues related to access and retention of economically diverse students and employees, and to be critical of a system that has historically upheld upper-middle class norms and intergenerational wealth. Just as blind patriotism and critical patriotism create a different expectation of “good citizenship,” we believe being critical members of the system of higher education is important for those within it. Because social class is a concealable identity, and because we are often motivated and taught to conceal this particular identity, it often stays a rug not lifted. There is a lot of dirt and dust still left to be swept from under there.


Armstrong, E. A., & Hamilton, L. T. (2013). Paying for the party: How college maintains inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brantlinger, E. A. (2003). Dividing classes: How the middle class negotiates and rationalizes school advantage. New York, NY: Routledge Falmer.

Fry, R. (2014). Young adults, student debt, and economic well-being. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends Project.

Jackman, M. R., & Muha, M. J. (1984). Education and intergroup attitudes: Moral enlightenment, superficial democratic commitment, or ideological refinement? American Sociological Review, 49, 751–770.

Johnson, S. E., Richeson, J. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Middle class and marginal? Socioeconomic status, stigma, and self-regulation at an elite university. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology100(5), 838-852. doi: 10.1037/a0021956

Langhout, R. D., Drake, P., & Rosselli, F. (2009). Classism in the university setting: Examining student antecedents and outcomes. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2(3), 166-181.

Lott, B. & Bullock, H. E. (2007). Psychology and economic injustice: Personal, professional, and political intersections. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pew Charitable Trust (2016) The High Cost of Higher Education. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.

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