By Nelida Garcia, Harvard College ’14

Abstract

Numerous studies have documented the importance of parental involvement in shaping the educational experiences and achievement of students (Henderson and Berla 1994, Thorkildsen and Stein 1998, Lareau 2000).  For students at all levels of K-12, including adolescents, parental involvement has been linked to many positive outcomes such as higher grades, higher self-esteem, reduction in substance use, aspiration for college, and enrollment in college (Harvard Family Research Project, 2007). Parental involvement and encouragement is particularly important for the college-going processes of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, as these students are less likely to consider college as an option early in their schooling and also less likely to persist if they do enroll (Stage and Hossler 2000).

At the general level, my research deals with the relationship between social class and parental involvement. I ask: in what ways are working class parents involved in their children’s college-going process? How does their social class both inhibit and promote their involvement in their children’s education?

Ultimately, I argue that for working class families, social class both inhibits and facilitates parental involvement in their children’s college-going process in the following ways: it inhibits it by limiting the understanding of both formal and informal college-going processes, and it facilitates it by instilling the value of education in the context of parent’s economic hardship, and by fostering trust in children’s autonomy and judgment.

My study therefore strives to take a more holistic understanding of working class parental involvement – one that acknowledges the way social class influences different aspects of involvement and ultimately has consequences for the educational mobility of students from working class backgrounds.

Literature Review

In my review of literature, I examine two bodies of knowledge regarding the relationship between social class and parental involvement. The first one, which tends to be the dominant belief in the literature, finds that the social class of working class parents inhibits parental involvement in their children’s education, in both structural and cultural ways. The main argument of this body of knowledge, therefore, is that working class parental involvement may not necessarily promote students’ college-going processes, especially compared to their middle class counterparts. As a pushback to this argument, I will look at a second body of literature, which emphasizes the power of counterstories and the need for alternative conceptualizations of parental involvement. The main argument of research in this area, therefore, is not that working class parental involvement hinders students, but that involvement manifests itself in different ways, many of which promote children’s access to higher education.

How Social Class Inhibits Parental Involvement

Several studies find that the social class of working class parents structurally limits parental involvement (Lareau 1987, Mehan et al. 1996). For example, in their study on African American and Latino working class families, Mehan and colleagues (1996), argue that “asking low-income parents to attend school events and to help in the classroom…[makes] demands on the time and disposable income of parents,” which are more easily fulfilled by middle and upper class parents. In other words, they argue that working class parents are unable to be as involved in traditional ways in their child’s education due to the constraints of their jobs. Researchers who study parental involvement in the college-going process for working class students find similar patterns (Delgado-Gaitan 1991, 1992, McDonough 1997, Vargas 2004). For example, Finders and Lewis (1994), in their study of low-income African American parents, found that structural barriers such as inflexible work schedules and limited access to public transit prevented parents from attending college-related meetings with teachers. Furthermore, resource inequities such as inadequate access to computers and other types of electronics was a way that social class limited parents’ ability to be involved in the college-access of low-income students. The conclusion, therefore, is that although they may have good intentions, working class parental involvement does not necessarily propel students to higher education.

Furthermore, cultural constraints that stem from social class are also factors that limit parent’s involvement in their children’s education (Lareau 1987, McDonough 1997). For example, having “college knowledge” is a form of cultural capital that is often associated with middle and upper classes; McDonough (1997) argues that low SES parents “lack the necessary levels of college knowledge to help their children become successful college preparatory students in high school or competitive college applicants as 12th graders” (117). This constraint demonstrates how the working class experience, which usually involves having limited formal higher education, may prevent parents from fully understanding the college-going process.

At the forefront of cultural studies on parental involvement and social class is Annette Lareau. In her study of schools and parental involvement, Lareau (1987) finds that although teachers actively promote and value parental involvement in both working class and middle class communities, not all families have the capacity to be involved in the same level, as she finds that “the level of parental involvement is linked to the class position of the parents and to the social and cultural resources that social class yields in American society” (81).  She argues that lower class families had different beliefs about their role in their child’s education, which affected the ways they were involved. Specifically, she found that working class parents created separate spheres between the home environment and the school environment, and believed that it was the teacher’s responsibility to educate their child. They were therefore more likely to be passive in their involvement, according to Lareau. In contrast, middle class parents were more likely to see themselves as central to their child’s education process, which was demonstrated through their constant contact with teachers and their more active role in parent-teacher conferences, for example.  This argument was further echoed in her study on family-school relationships in a predominantly white, working class elementary school (2000). In this study, she focused on the parent’s perspective of their involvement in their children’s education. Her study found that because working class parents “believe that teachers are responsible for education, they seek little information about either the curriculum or the educational process, and their criticism of the school centers almost entirely on non-academic matters” (Lareau 2000:8). She therefore argues that working class parental involvement may hinder students, because it deviates from the more mainstream, middle class form of parental involvement that is often valued in school settings.

Counterstories and Alternative Conceptualizations of Parental Involvement

An emerging body of research on working class parental involvement calls into question the conceptualization of involvement in most studies on parental involvement. An important question to consider is whether working class parents are truly less involved or “if what is defined as a lack of involvement is merely a reflection of the investigator’s dominant culture, mainstream American frame of reference” (Smith 2009). Lareau’s (1987) study, for example, measures parental involvement in a one-dimensional way, largely judging it from the perspective of the teacher: “although these [working class] parents read to their children, teach them new words, and review their papers, such activities are sporadic rather than enduring and are substantially less than what the teachers would like” (8). In other words, Lareau’s study defines parental involvement in traditional ways; for example, by participation in school-related activities or attendance in parent-teacher conferences. Her study privileges the perspectives of school officials, such as teachers, in defining how parents should participate in their student’s education. In doing so, she is systemically disregarding other ways in which working class parents may be involved in their children’s education (Delgado-Gaitan 1991, 1992; Perez, 2000).

Therefore, it is important for researchers to also look at alternative forms of parental involvement among the working class. For example, Knight and colleagues (2004) argue that Black and Latino working class families use a diversity of practices to support their children’s college-going processes. They call these non-traditional forms of parental involvement “counterstories.” For example, Jennifer, a college-bound working class student, talked about the influences of “the counterstories of working class ethnic minority women, especially those with children, who knew that college is necessary to increase job stability, career options, and an improved quality of life for the future” (109). In this way, being in the working class gave individuals a certain perspective that allowed them to value higher education, and subsequently promote it for their children. Thus, working class parental involvement may go beyond the traditional method of family-school relationships, and may instead focus more on encouraging students to go to college by telling personal counterstories.

Another example of a counterstory was found in Lopez’s (2001) study on working class immigrant families’ involvement. One family in the study, the Padillas, understood involvement not as participating in specific school activities, but as “a means of instilling in their children the values of education through the medium of hard work, and viewed taking their children to work as a form of involvement” (Lopez 2001:416). For these children, understanding how hard it was to work in the fields served as a motivating factor for the pursuit of education. Again, in this example, the value of education emerges from the unique perspective of being working class.

Furthermore, it is important not to underestimate the power of verbal support and encouragement. Ethnographic studies of lower income Latino parents found that, although they struggled financially, they had postsecondary educational goals for their children that often included college attendance (Delgado-Gaitan 1991, 1992; Perez, 2000). Parent’s high aspirations for their children can themselves constitute a type of parental involvement, as parental support and encouragement have been found to positively influence postsecondary educational aspirations of working class students (Stage and Hossler, 1989; Hossler, Schmidt and Vesper, 1999). Parental encouragement can be defined by the frequency of parents’ and students’ discussion about parents’ expectations, hopes and dreams for their children in regards to attending college. Parental support is more tangible and includes behaviors such as parents saving money for college, visiting college campuses, and attending financial aid workshops (Hossler, Schmidt and Vesper, 1999). Because parental encouragement does not necessarily depend on the economic and cultural resources that stem from social class, it may constitute a method used by working class parents to promote higher education aspirations for their children.

Thus, in order to understand the myriad of ways in which working class parents are involved in their children’s education, it is important to broaden our conceptualization of “involvement” to include non-traditional forms. This is where my research comes in. Moving beyond the dichotomy of working class parental involvement as either promoting or hindering students’ college-going processes, I attempt to paint a more holistic picture of their involvement by asking the following questions: in what ways are working class parents involved in their children’s college-going process? How does their social class both inhibit and promote their involvement in their children’s education?

Methods

To answer my research question, I used qualitative methods in the form of in-depth interviews. I interviewed college students, from working class backgrounds, for their perspectives on their parent’s involvement in their college-going process. Interviews are better suited for unearthing student’s perceptions of their parents’ involvement, because they can allow for the data on parental involvement to be inductive and not imposed. In other words, unlike surveys, interviews can allow for the participant to guide the conversation, and mention parental forms of involvement that differ from the traditional conceptualization found in the dominant literature.

For this study, I conducted nine in-depth interviews with Harvard College students, using a semi-structured interview schedule (see Appendix A). All interviews lasted from 45 minutes to about an hour. Because the students in this sample attend an elite university, it is likely that their experiences may differ from the vast majority of working class college students in this country. Therefore, the findings in my study may be interpreted as the “best case scenarios” for students of working class backgrounds, and should not be interpreted as the typical scenario. It is important to acknowledge that my study, by focusing on Harvard College students, may not fully unearth the many barriers that the average working class student encounters in their path to college.

Sampling and Participants

For my study, I used two forms of sampling. First, I recruited participants by sending out emails over House and cultural organizations’ emailing lists. I chose not to use the phrase “working class” in my recruitment email, out of the belief that students may not have self-identified as such. Therefore, I wrote that I was looking for “first-generation college students”, and then gauged the participants’ social class during the interview. The other form of sampling I used was snowball sampling. After I would finish interviewing a participant, I would ask if they would be willing to give me the names of any friends who might be interested in participating.

It is important to note the potential implications of this kind of sampling. It may be that because these students opted-in to participate in the study, they may have particularly strong feelings about their parent’s involvement in their education. These perceptions may therefore be different from a sample that was chosen at random.

All nine participants were first-generation college students who came from working class backgrounds. Some examples of their parents’ jobs were: factory worker, construction worker, domestic worker, custodian, air conditioning technician, mechanic, truck driver, and furniture salesman. All participants were interviewed in House dining halls, with interviews being audio recorded, and later transcribed verbatim.  In the following section, I present the results of my study. Pseudonyms are used to protect the identity of the participants.

Results

Four common themes emerged from the students’ interviews, which reflected the ways that social class both inhibited and promoted parental involvement in the college-going process. Social class inhibited parental involvement through: (1) a limited understanding of formal college-going processes and (2) a limited understanding of informal college-going processes. Social class promoted parental involvement through: (3) valuing education in the context of parent’s economic hardships and (4) instilling trust in student’s autonomy and judgment. I will describe each of these themes in detail in the following sections. I will go into the analysis of the data in the “Discussion” section.

Limited Understanding of “Formal” College-Going Processes

Although all participants believed that their parents valued education, they expressed awareness that their parents had a limited understanding of how to actually go about applying to college. Formal processes are defined as the actual college application, financial aid application, soliciting letters of recommendation, etc. Noemi, the daughter of a stay-at-home mother and a furniture salesman, explained that her parents “just knew that focusing in school was how you were supposed to do it. But they didn’t know how to guide me through the college application process or anything.” Similarly, when asked about her experience beginning to apply to college, Alex, the oldest daughter of immigrants, initially laughed, saying “So I didn’t have any idea of like, what you were supposed to do…like, I guess I started hearing in middle school ‘go to college, go to college, go to college,’ but I didn’t start thinking until high school, ‘well, how, how do you go to college?” For many students, like Francisco, this was seen as a disadvantage:

When it came down to actually doing it, it was like hard. Because sometimes you had some questions, where you don’t know what something means, but your parents don’t know, and your siblings don’t know, so then you have to wait and try to figure it out.

In response to their parent’s limited understanding of the formal process, many students felt they had to be extra proactive. Some examples of strategies that students used were: spending a lot of time talking to their counselor, looking for resources online, asking peers that knew more about the process, and finding a teacher who they got along with to guide them. For many students, these actions were not only helpful, but necessary. For example, Sabrina, the daughter of a construction worker and a domestic worker, explained that she felt there were repercussions to not being proactive, as she would miss out on an important step in the college-application process: “[being the first in my family to go to college] made it more difficult because if I didn’t ask someone about something, then I wouldn’t know it, then it would affect me in the future.”

Furthermore, in being proactive, some students found that their class background sometimes created additional barriers to applying to college. Stephanie, another participant, explained that her family couldn’t afford a computer, so she mostly worked on her college applications during her free class periods or after-school in the computer lab: “I had to work in bursts of 50 minutes or so…and sometimes it was hard when I was on a roll, you know? And then having to remember where I was — it was just, it was a frustrating process.” For some students, moments like these created an awareness of how their class background may have been a disadvantage. For example, Nancy, the daughter of a single mother, explained:

A lot of students here [at Harvard] I know have SAT prep, and their parents are really involved in making sure that they have the best resources available to like, apply to college…a lot of parents already went to college, so they could guide them through the process. I didn’t even know how to do financial aid, I had to do it all by myself.

Although Nancy said that she didn’t blame her mother for a limited understanding of the formal college-going process, she did express a belief that it posed a barrier to her access to higher education.

Limited Understanding of “Informal” College-Going Processes

Another common theme that emerged from the interviews was that parents had a limited understanding of the informal college-going process. I define informal processes as the underlying aspects of the high school experience that are seen as desirable by college admission officers, and which therefore enhance the applicant’s prospects for higher education. Noemi explained: “you know, they’re looking for a ‘well-rounded’ student, someone who doesn’t just go to classes and stuff. Like, to get into college, you need to do other things too, besides academics.”

One particular informal aspect of the college-going process that parents were not always aware of was the importance of extracurricular activities. This theme emerged from the interviews, unsolicited by me (in fact, I hadn’t considered it when writing up my interview questions). The question that I asked that evoked this answer was: “Were you ever frustrated in the process of applying to college?” In response to it, Sabrina said: “I mean, my mom always supported my education, but one thing she didn’t like at first, is that I would rarely be home in the evenings, because I was always in extracurriculars…my parents were like, ‘you’re not home, te estás hacienda la vaga.’ And I had to explain that I was actually doing productive stuff.” In this example, Sabrina’s parents have a negative opinion of her being away from home for so long. The word vaga is often used to describe someone who’s lazy, and/or who often wanders around aimlessly. In other words, there’s a clear negative value attributed to it, and a limited understanding of the value in extracurricular activities, especially for the college-going process.

Nancy told a similar story, stating: “Sometimes it was hard because [my mother would] be like, ‘Why are you staying out so late?’ Like, my mom didn’t quite understand what it meant to be involved in extracurricular activities, and what it meant for the college process as well. So I had to keep reminding her, this is for my own good, I really enjoy it as well, you know.” Another participant, Stephanie, also experienced a similar situation of having to convince her mom about the importance of extracurricular activities:

The way I had to convince my mom to let me do these things, you know, stay after school, and have her pick me up and that sort of thing. Um, like, the argument I had to use was, ‘I need this to go to college.’ And she was like, ‘why do you have to do this? You don’t have to…You just need to do well in school.’  Because for her, it was like, you work hard, you get good grades, and then you go to college. And I’m like, ‘no, I wanna do better. You know, like, go to a great place. Like, I need to…like, she had a lack of understanding about what it involved.

In these examples, it is obvious that their parents had a limited understanding of the purpose of extracurricular activities. According to the students, many of the parents assumed that simply focusing on excelling academically would guarantee their child a college acceptance, and were largely unaware of the other factors that boost their college competitiveness.

Although social class served to create barriers and limit parental involvement in student’s college-going process, it also promoted a special type of parental involvement, by contextualizing the value of education and instilling trust in the student’s autonomy and judgment.

Valuing Education in the Context of Parent’s Economic Hardships

All nine participants expressed the belief that their parents highly valued education. In all cases, their parents consistently expressed verbal support for getting an education. There were differences between those students who claimed that their parents encouraged college specifically, versus those who claimed that they encouraged the pursuit of “education” as a general concept. In all cases, though, the value of education was couched within the context of their parent’s economic hardships. In other words, parents encouraged children to get an education in order to avoid ending up in a similar economic position as them.

Sabrina, for example, explained what her parents said about education: “‘Go to college, do well, so that you don’t end up like we did’ … I feel like my parents didn’t get to reach their full potential, which is something that they want us to be able to do.” Here we see that her parents believe that education is a means of avoiding the same fate as them.  A similar sentiment was echoed by Guillermo, whose father explicitly stressed college: “He told us that it was hard work, what he was doing. And that it would be much better for our future if we studied.” Guillermo’s father saw education as a way of creating a better life for his son, by avoiding the physical burdens of a working class job.

This connection between the value in the student’s education and the parent’s job is exemplified in Stephanie’s description of her parent’s thoughts on education. When asked: “Did your parents think it was important to go to college? Why?” she responded with:

It wasn’t really college, it was always like estudiar, like, you know, you have to study…Oh, and then the summer after high school there was this high school work program, and it was all manual labor. I hated it. I hated it so much. And like, my mom would be like ‘see, see how hard it is to do it?’ and she said it almost like, it was, on the one hand it was very *pause* like she was saying ‘look what I can do, it’s something not everyone can do, and like you need to appreciate this,’ right? At the same time, she was using it — I guess she wanted me to learn from it, and use that as my motivation to not, you know, have a job like hers…It affirmed my motivation to stake it out through school…cause it was awful.

Stephanie’s account of her parent’s thoughts on education highlights the complexity of how they valued education. Without denying her own pride in her working class job, her mother used it as a motivating force to push her daughter to value education. She believed that without an education, Stephanie might end up working a similar type of job as her mother, which is seen as an undesirable outcome by both the daughter and the mother.

In fact, parents so highly valued their children’s mobility through education, that when I asked participants the question: “Growing up, did you ever see yourself working similar jobs as your parents?” every single respondent answered in the negative. As Nancy, explained: “There’s always this emphasis on becoming like a lawyer, doctor, or teacher, you know. No one ever says, ‘When I grow up, I wanna be a factory worker’.”

Trust in Student’s Autonomy and Judgment

The final, and perhaps most interesting, theme that emerged was the parent’s high level of trust in their children. Across the board, participants explained that their parents granted them a certain level of autonomy and often had to trust in their judgment regarding processes that the parents had limited personal understanding of. In allowing their children to participate in extracurricular activities, for example, many parents had to trust that their children were actually doing what they said they were doing. Many participants explained that although there may have been tension and hesitation at first, their parents often took their word for it. Alex succinctly demonstrates this theme: “So I explained [the importance of extracurricular activities] to my mom, and she was like, ‘Ok, I trust you.’”

This high level of trust was also evident at the time the students made the decision of which college to go to. Valeria, the daughter of a construction worker and a domestic worker, explained that her parents didn’t push for a particular college, but instead allowed her to make the call: “They were like, you should do it, if it’s gonna help you. Like, you know what you’re doing, sort of way. So they’ve always been supportive. Kinda, like, not hands-off, but I think that, all things considered, they really don’t know…so they allowed me to do whatever I felt I had to do to get what I wanted.”

In Valeria’s quote, we can see the nuance of working class parental involvement: in some ways, they may have a limited understanding of the process, which can be interpreted as a barrier to involvement. However, in response, they are also highly trusting towards their children, which implies a certain level of support and high parental investment in their children’s education.

Furthermore, parents were often trusting in letting their children choose the college they wanted to go to. In choosing a college, students explained that “selectivity” was highly important to them, but it was something that had to be explained to their parents, who were often unaware of the differences between schools in that regard. The following two examples of students from California highlight this theme:

Ana, a native of Los Angeles: “My dad was all like, ‘Why don’t you just stay home? Go to UCLA. I thought you got in to UCLA? Your family’s here.’ And I was all like, ‘Yeah, but I don’t wanna go to UCLA. I got into somewhere better’… I mean, regardless of what they said, I was still gonna do whatever I wanted to.”

Stephanie: “I mean, I knew they weren’t gonna stop me from going where I wanted to go. But you know moms, she was all like, ‘No, you have to stay close to home.’ So, that was an issue, having her say, ‘I don’t know why you can’t just go to the state school here, or you can go to UC Davis, it’s only 2 hours away. Why do you have to go so far away?’

In these examples, the student’s awareness of their own agency is apparent – both of them do not feel constrained by their parent’s opinions. Furthermore, in both cases, although the parents had doubts about sending their child to a university across the country, they eventually conceded, because they trusted their child’s assertion that it was in their best interest.

Discussion and Conclusion

The ways in which working class parents are involved in their children’s education continues to be debated in the literature on social class and parental involvement.  While the established literature generally finds that working class parents are involved in less productive ways in their children’s education than middle class parents (Lareau 1987, 2000), a growing body of research emphasizes an expansion of the conceptualization of “parental involvement” to include counterstories and non-traditional forms of involvement (Knight et al. 2004, Smith 2009).

Going a step beyond simply asking whether their involvement is helpful and productive or not, my study aimed to round out the literature by exploring the following questions: in what ways are working class parents involved in their children’s college-going process? How does their social class both inhibit and promote their involvement in their children’s education? Four themes emerged from the students’ interviews. Working class parents:  (1) had a limited understanding of formal college-going processes, (2) had a limited understanding of informal college-going processes, (3) valued education for their children in the context of their own economic hardships, and (4) had trust in their children’s autonomy and judgment. In this way, their social class both inhibited and promoted their involvement in distinct ways.

The finding that working class parents value education in the context of their own economic hardships complicates Lareau’s (2000) understanding of how parents value education.  In her study on family-school relationships, she found that working class parents create separate spheres between the home environment and the school environment, and believe that teachers are responsible for the education of their children. However, my study found that parents took it as their own responsibility to instill in their children the value of an education. Although none of the parents in my study had been to college themselves, they all valued higher education as a way of promoting their children’s mobility and avoiding a similar job as the on they had. This perspective is unique to their particular social class, as the value of education stemmed from the desire for their children to have better jobs than them. The differences between Lareau’s findings and my findings can probably be attributed to the way we collected our data. Lareau examined the perspective of parents of elementary-age children, and conceptualized parental involvement through parent-teacher relationships. My study, on the other hand, examined parental involvement from the perspective of college students, and conceptualized involvement as including counterstories and narratives of struggle. By doing so, I was able to complicate the conceptualization of the value of education from the working class perspective.

The first two findings, that parents had limited formal and informal understandings of the college application process, are in line with previous studies on working class parents (Delgado-Gaitan 1991, 1992, McDonough 1997). If anything, my findings serve to further explain the way social class inhibits working class parent’s involvement in their education — not only do parents have trouble understanding the college application process, they may also have limited knowledge on the type of high school experience that colleges are looking for. This limited awareness of what strategies are best for their children may make it difficult for parents to facilitate their children’s educational mobility, which puts working class high school students at a greater disadvantage.

The last finding, that parents had enormous trust in their children’s autonomy and judgment, helps paint a more holistic picture of working class parental involvement — one that is definitely missing from the literature. Because of their limited understanding of the college-going process, parents often conveyed trust in their children and encouraged them to do what they thought was best. Consequently, students managed most aspects of their academic careers on their own –with little specific parental input, but instead general support for their children’s choices. This finding uncovers a way that social class may actually facilitate a special type of parental involvement that can help working class students succeed in getting to college. The ability to trust your children and grant them some autonomy indicates very supportive parenting that can ease student’s college-going processes.

In sum, given these findings, I argue that for working class families, social class both inhibits and facilitates parental involvement in their children’s college-going process. My study therefore strives to take a nuanced understanding of working class parental involvement — one that moves beyond the assumption that working class parents are not involved in productive ways, by broadening the definition of “involvement”, but also one that recognizes the way social class can create real barriers to the college-going trajectory of working class students.

Limitations and Implications for Further Research

Perhaps the greatest limitation of this study is that the sample consists of students who go to an elite college. It is possible that the students in this study represent an unusually select group of people, which may not be representative of the experiences of the vast majority of working class students applying to college. If that is the case, the level of pro-activeness that the students took to compensate for their parents’ limited understanding of the college-going process may be higher than the average, given that all these students were clearly able to get into college. Because the level of resourcefulness of my sample may be higher than the norm, my study may overestimate individual agency and underestimate the way parent’s limited understanding of college-going processes may pose a bigger barrier for more mainstream working class college students.

In regards to future research, it would be illuminating to study working class parental involvement for college students in more traditional universities. Such studies would perhaps find more generalizable conclusions than the present study. Additionally, it may be beneficial to study parental involvement from the parent perspective, as it may help uncover the underlying thought processes of working class parents. Furthermore, it would be interesting to understand the role of trust in the context of middle class parental involvement. Understanding trust in students from different social classes can further deepen our understanding of the relationship between social class, agency, and educational mobility.

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