Dartmouth Dean Finds ‘Class Is the Last Barrier’ at Elite Colleges

  • Kerry H. Landers, an assistant dean of graduate student affairs at Dartmouth College, has written a book about the challenges facing low-income and first-generation students Ivy League schools. (Eli Burakian photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2018

When she was an undergraduate at Hartwick College in the 1980s, Kerry Landers didn’t realize she was a first-generation college student.

What she did know was that her mother and Irish-immigrant father worked blue-collar jobs in a white-collar Boston suburb, and that they didn’t have the kinds of connections that her friends’ college-educated parents seemed to have in spades, and that after spring break, it felt like she was the only one who didn’t come back tan.

“I’m red-headed with fair skin, so I wouldn’t have tanned anyway,” laughed Landers, who is now an assistant dean of graduate student affairs at Dartmouth College, in a phone interview. “But still. It was a lot of those kinds of experiences.”

Landers recently came out with her first book, Postsecondary Education for First-Generation and Low-Income Students in the Ivy League, for which she interviewed 20 lower-income and first-generation Dartmouth seniors in 2003 and 2004, and touched base with them again years later.

The 260-page text grew out of her dissertation in education leadership studies at the University of Vermont, and weaves research in with these students’ reflections on what it’s like to navigate an elite institution where most everyone is assumed to be at least middle-class — and where many of them gained cultural capital that would help them cross the threshold into that class. The book came out in October from Palgrave Macmillan.

It bears noting that, although the term “first-generation” overlaps with and is sometimes used synonymously with “low-income,” they are not the same: Low-income refers to the socioeconomic standing of the student’s family. First-generation has a few different interpretations, but Landers’ defines it as “students who did not have parents who went to college,” she wrote in an email.

In her book, she writes that “class is the last barrier” at many elite colleges, which have made strides in promoting gender and racial diversity but whose student bodies remain overwhelmingly wealthy. At Dartmouth, the median family income is $200,400, The New York Times reported last year. Sixty-nine percent of Dartmouth students come from the richest 20 percent of families. Forty-five percent come from the richest 5 percent.

Meanwhile, less than 3 percent of Dartmouth students come from the bottom 20 percent of family incomes. Two-thirds of adults in the United States do not have a four-year degree. Dartmouth’s total estimated cost of attendance in 2018-2019, according to its admissions website, is $73,836. This includes factors such as housing and meals, but does not include health insurance ($3,191), a basic computer package ($1,450), first-year fees ($418) and travel costs.

And Dartmouth, like many of its peer institutions, now promises to meet 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need.

Still, “even with generous financial aid, students still struggle with what they cannot cover,” Landers said. They might avoid courses that require expensive books or supplies, and unpaid internships are generally out of the question. Those who grew up in poor areas might experience culture shock.

To protect the identities of the students she interviewed, Landers has given them pseudonyms in the book. Among these students was Kevin, who expressed his own form of culture shock by describing himself as “environment sick,” rather than homesick. He questioned whether he belonged to this new world, and wondered if having a hard time at Dartmouth meant there was something wrong with him.

As Landers writes, “Learning the culture feels like adding another class to an already full course load, and this new class lasts all four years, day and night.”

Meanwhile, they often juggle what Landers calls the “triple shift” — school, extracurriculars and work — with scant time left over for socializing and sleep. One student, Heather, calculated that she worked 30 hours a week at an administrative office, and another 20-25 hours at various other jobs, on top of writing her thesis.

Yet many of Heather’s peers would never have guessed at her background, or considered how much it affected her time at Dartmouth. This phenomenon of “passing” was a major thread that emerged among the students Landers interviewed. “It’s really easy to hide your class here,” Heather told Landers. “Really easy.”

Especially if you’re white.

“The African-American students generally ... are assumed lower class,” said Kevin, a black student. “And I think the reverse is the case for whites at Dartmouth.”

Another student, Mohammad, echoed this sentiment: “They don’t assume that I’m middle-class, but I will suggest this, that most people here assume that black people are — have been — recipients of affirmative action, and on financial aid,” he said. “(H)alf of them are not on financial aid, or not receiving a great deal of financial aid. … It’s a big misconception that exists on this campus.”

Even for students who pass as middle-class, there are downsides to hiding in plain sight, Landers argues.

“(U)ltimately they carry the weight of not showing their full identities. … On the surface, some believe that ‘passing’ levels the playing field with peers, but internally it pressures students to conform and obscure their true identities. For many, it is emotionally tiring to fit in,” she writes. On the other hand, “disclosing their low-income status can be anxiety-provoking to students for a number of reasons, including not knowing if they will be judged negatively or pitied.”

Despite the challenges of navigating a space where they are the exception rather than the norm, “almost all of them increased their socioeconomic status by going to an elite school,” Landers said. To her, their outcomes illustrate how low-income and first-gen students have the most to gain from attending selective schools, how much independence and grit they need to get through those four years, and how crucial it is for elite colleges to become more accessible to these students.

In recent years, “Dartmouth has really upped its game” in terms of providing this support, financial and otherwise, Landers said. There are special resources and campus groups meant to help these students feel more comfortable, to let them know they’re not alone, though one major obstacle lies in convincing students that reaching out for help doesn’t mean they’re weak.

The next steps for elite colleges across the country? Becoming more transparent about the true cost of attendance, which goes far beyond tuition alone; offering financial advising and academic support to students, in a way that isn’t stigmatizing; and helping students afford necessities, such as books, that financial aid doesn’t traditionally cover. Elite schools have vast resources at their disposal, Landers notes. This is one way to put it to good use.

“This is an opportunity to understand the American Dream and its impact on how students make the transition into a new class,” she writes in the conclusion of her book. “What do they gain and what do they lose as they strive to achieve this dream? Perhaps if they become visible in college, they will lose less of themselves.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.