One of These is Not Always Like the Other: Social Class & First-Generation College Student Status | Ardoin, Nguyen


This case addresses intersections of two salient identities—social class and first generation college student (FGCS) status—which are often challenging to visibly distinguish and mistakenly conflated (Ardoin, 2021; Rubin et al., 2014; Warnock & Hurst, 2016). In this scenario, the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA) meets with two prospective students and makes a “well-intended” but harmful comment during a meeting; the students then seek guidance from their assigned admissions counselor, who must figure out how to assist the students, navigate campus politics, and suggest training on these identities and student populations for the Division or Institution.

Keywords Social class, first generation college students, class consciousness

Primary Characters

Greta (she/her) is an admissions counselor for Winton College. As an admissions counselor, she is primarily responsible for the recruitment of first-generation college students. She completed an undergraduate degree from Winton. As an undergraduate student, Greta found employment in the Admissions office and subsequently filled an opening three years ago when an admissions counselor position became available.

Trenton (he/him) is a prospective first-generation college student from a working-class background.

Alexis (she/her) is a prospective first-generation college student from a middle-class background.

Dr. Foster (she/her) is the Vice President of Student Affairs at Winton College for the past 12 years and the admissions office is part of her portfolio. 


Social class remains a misunderstood and ambiguous concept within higher education contexts because it is often a taboo topic and visible markers make it difficult to distinguish students across different objective and subjective indicators (Ardoin, 2021; Evans et al., 2022; Rubin et al., 2014; Warnock & Hurst, 2016).  These measures stem from upbringings and meaning-making with the world. Like social class identity, first-generation college students (FGCS)—students whose primary caregivers did not earn four-year degrees–are not easy to identify. While many FGCSs come from poor or working-class (PWC) backgrounds (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Ward et al., 2012), these multiple identities should not be conflated as students may feel strongly about one construct, but not the other, or identify with a different social class (Davis, 2010; Herrman et al., 2022).  Consequently, higher education and student affairs administrators need to further develop and refine normative understandings around social class identity.  Given the complexity of this concept, educators need to allocate time to learn students’ stories, rather than making common assumptions.  Understanding and acknowledging social class differences can shape how institutional leaders and student affairs professionals develop structures, policies, and data gathering techniques to create systems that recognize the complexity of and systemic issues around identity. 


Winton College is a small private liberal arts college in the Northeast.  Winston holds a reputation of being a homogenous and expensive institution. With escalating tuition prices, diminishing state appropriations, and declining returns on endowment investments, Winston is experiencing challenges recruiting students from underserved and historically excluded identities, including FGCS and PWC backgrounds.  The President and Board of Trustees have directed the admissions office, which falls under the direction of the Vice President of Student Affairs (VPSA), to increase enrollment of underserved and historically excluded populations by 10 percent for next Fall. Funding for additional scholarships for this particular population has been increased and secured.

The majority of the faculty and administrators at Winton College mirror the student population, holding privileged identities, and the institution has not hosted any training or professional development opportunities for its employees on working with FGCS or students from PWC backgrounds. Thus, it is unclear if Winton College is truly prepared to welcome new student populations to campus or support their path to success. 

August 1. Before admissions recruitment season began, Greta, an admissions counselor for Winton College was tasked with recruiting more FGCS to apply for admission. During prospective student visits, Greta and other admissions counselors specifically invite FGCSs to meet the VPSA at Winton during November campus visit dates. The VPSA, Dr. Foster, believed this kind of personal attention would be attractive to prospective students.

September 30. During a high school recruitment event, Greta met Trenton, a high school senior and prospective FGCS. The recruitment event occurred at a high school gymnasium in Southwick, which is generally known to be a working-class community. During the course of the conversation Trenton confided that he was very interested in applying to Winton College as a chance at “a better life” as the first in his family to pursue a four-year degree but was concerned about the financial component because his family had limited income. Greta noted this specific interaction in her admissions counselor logbook and earmarked Trenton’s information to have him visit campus during one of the specialized FGCS campus visit dates in November.

During this same event, Greta met Alexis – the likely salutatorian of the high school with elite test scores and extensive extracurricular engagement. Alexis shared with Greta that she was being sought after by several institutions but that she was drawn to Winton College because of its smaller size and liberal arts focus which would allow her to build relationships with faculty and explore different subject areas. Although Alexis would be the first person in her family to pursue a four-year degree, her family ran several successful businesses in Southwick, owning and operating the local gas station and construction company. Financially, the family was solidly middle-class. Greta was impressed with Alexis and added a notation to put her on the invitation list for one of the specialized FGCS campus visit dates in November.

November 15. Both Trenton and Alexis were excited to visit Winton College and meet with Dr. Foster, the VPSA who had been in her position for 12 years. As a third-generation college graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree at an institution very similar to Winton and then graduate degrees from elite, private institutions.

Dr. Foster met with a small group of students—including Trenton and Alexis—attending Winton’s FGCS recruitment initiative. She began the meeting framing Winton as a friendly place for FGCSs, particularly those from PWC backgrounds. Believing that all the students in the group came from similar backgrounds, Dr. Foster discussed at length how Winton provided upward mobility for PWC students and offered food pantry, career closet, and emergency funds services to help meet students’ basic needs. Dr. Foster ended her time with the group by stating that the students would be more successful at Winton because other universities in the area “threw students into the pool to either swim or sink” and she warned the group that they would be more likely to sink because of their PWC backgrounds. She also reiterated how many FGCSs from PWC families flourished at Winton.

After their meeting with Dr. Foster, Trenton and Alexis began to re-evaluate if Winton was the right place for their college experience. While they thought the campus was beautiful and would meet their academic needs, they both were slightly insulted by the VPSA’s comments and contemplated mentioning their hesitation to Greta, their admissions counselor.

Two weeks later, Greta followed up with the two prospective students and was surprised to hear that meeting with Dr. Foster made the students question their interest in Winton rather than solidify it. Her initial thought was that she would need to increase any scholarships being offered to Trenton and Alexis to hopefully make up for the meeting mishap. She then remembered that there were other prospective FGCS in that meeting and some of these other students may have experienced Dr. Foster and the meeting similarly. Greta began to recognize that scholarship funding may not be the appropriate or realistic response. But what was appropriate? She and her colleagues in admissions had to figure it out because there would be consequences for them and Dr. Foster if the 10 percent targeted enrollment increase for underserved populations was not achieved.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How should Greta, the admissions counselor, respond to the prospective students?
  2. In what ways can the high school or college support the students in understanding the complexity of their identities?
  3. How can Greta, the admission counselor, address the “well-intentioned” bias of Dr. Foster, the vice president?
  4. What training or professional development activities could be utilized on campus to further develop the consciousness and skills of administrators around social class identity and/or FGCSs?


Ardoin, S. (2021). The nuances of first-generation college students’ social class identity. In R. Longwell-Grice & H. Longwell-Grice (Eds)., At the intersection: Understanding and supporting first-generation students (pp. 88-99). Stylus.

Davis, J. (2010). The first-generation student experience: Implications for campus practice, and strategies for improving persistence and success. Stylus.

Evans, O., McGuffog, R., Gendi, M., & Rubin, M. (2022). A first class measure: Evidence for a comprehensive social class scale in higher education populations. Research in Higher Education.

Herrmann, S. D., Varnum, M. E., Straka, B. C., & Gaither, S. E. (2022). Social class identity integration and success for first-generation college students: Antecedents, mechanisms, and generalizability. Self and Identity, 21(5), 553–587.

Hurst, A. (2010). The burden of academic success: Loyalists, renegades, and double agents. Winton.

Lohfink, M. & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generational and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 409–428.

Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). “I am working-class” subjective self-definition as a missing measure of social class and socioeconomic status in higher education research. Educational Researcher, 43(4), 196–200.

Ward, L., Seigel, M. J., & Davenport, Z. (2012). First generation college students: Understanding and improving the experiences from recruitment to commencement. Jossey-Bass.

Warnock, D. M., & Hurst, A. L. (2016). “The poor kids’ table”: Organizing around an invisible and stigmatized identity in flux. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9(3), 261–276.

Author Bios

Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. (she/her) is a learner, educator, facilitator, and author. Proud of her rural hometown of Vidrine, Louisiana, her working-class, Cajun roots, and her first-generation college student to PhD journey, Sonja holds degrees from LSU, Florida State, and NC State. She considers herself a scholar-practitioner of higher education; she served as an administrator for 10 years before shifting to the faculty in 2015. Sonja currently serves as an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Clemson University and studies social class identity, college access and success for rural and first-generation college students, and career preparation and pathways in higher education and student affairs. Learn more about Sonja’s work at

Dave Nguyen, Ph.D. (he/him) is Dean of the University College and Associate Professor of Higher Education & Student Affairs at Ohio University. Even with his administrative post, Dave maintains his advising/coaching load to support the next generation of scholar-practitioners. His research explores how campus ecology contributes to student success by calling attention to how individuals and organizational features hinder or widen equitable opportunities for students holding minoritized identities.