The Silent Minority:

A Study of Working Class Students at Boston College, an Upper-Middle Class Campus







Kristin Tyler

Prof. Mike Malec

Honors Thesis




The Silent Minority:

A Study of Working Class Students at Boston College, an Upper-Middle Class Campus

This paper examines the existence of class consciousness among working class students
at Boston College. Marx defined class consciousness as a sense of belonging to a
certain group of people who share the same interests and burdens. Ultimately, he
believed these people would organize in order to enact social change. Gathering data
from 13 working class students, it was found that working class students at Boston
College do not have a sense of class consciousness. This is due to the fact that there
is an overwhelming upper-middle class consciousness which forces them to assimilate to
the mainstream. This prevents them from recognizing each other and uniting to foster
social change. It is also shown that the administration at Boston College has a vested
interest in maintaining this upper-middle class, elite reputation and mystique.






I. Research Topic

This section explains which theory I am basing my thesis on, and what exactly my hypothesis is.

II. Rationale

This section explains why I chose to do this research and how my own background relates to it.

III. Literature Review

This section lists the literature and outside research used in this study.

IV. Conceptualization and Methodology

This section defines the variables that I intend to examine, and the method by which I have chosen to do so.

V. Implications

This section puts forth the possible consequences and benefits of doing this study.


VI. Data and Analysis

This section will explain my findings and the analysis of these findings, constructed in the following way:

    1. a brief description of the process through which I conducted my research,
    2. working-class; to ensure the validity of my subjects, their family backgrounds and struggles to go to college are examined,
    3. upper-middle class; I examine whether or not my subjects define Boston College as an upper-middle class campus, and their feelings about that,
    4. class consciousness; it is most important to determine whether or not my subjects believe that there is a working-class consciousness, and to try to find reasons why this may or may not exist:
    1. isolation; I examine the level of isolation or socialization among my subjects to determine its effect on class consciousness,
    2. assimilation; this is also another important factor in determining the lack or presence of class consciousness,
    3. organization; this will explain whether or not there is a chance to unite and work together to further common interests.

VII. Conclusion

This section will present my final thoughts and reflections on the research.






















Research Topic:

My research project is to study the experiences of working class students on an upper-middle class campus, such as Boston College. This work very closely follows from the ideas of Karl Marx concerning social class. Marx viewed society as being stratified into very different and distinguishable categories, or classes. "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian…in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another…"(Blumberg 1972:12). These classes were defined by their relationship to the means of production. Basically, there were those who owned the means and those who did not. Those who did not had to live off of their labor. Furthermore, Marx believed that those in each class shared a sense of belonging and community within their class. This shared identity creates common interests. He referred to this phenomenon as class consciousness(Centers 1961).

During Marx’s time, his main focus was on two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The former were those who owned the means of production, and the latter were those who owned only their labor. Marx believed that the position held by the proletariat created certain experiences and problems that were shared by each member of that class. Unfortunately, they were not aware of this. In other words, they had no class consciousness. However, Marx believed that because of these shared experiences, and the shared oppression from the bourgeoisie, class consciousness would eventually emerge, and thus become a tool for fighting their position in society:

The internal cohesiveness of a
social group and its power to
act as a unit in competition
with other social groups depend
to a large extent on the extent
to which members of the group
are aware of the reality of the
group and of their own membership
in it(Centers 1961:75).

Through unity and organization, the proletariat would develop a voice that would enable them to incite social change.

This pattern is still very much at work in today’s society, although there are a number of additional classes which have appeared over time. More importantly, this pattern also exists at Boston College. "…there is social class inequality built into the educational system itself that undermines equal opportunity. Whether a boy goes on to college…depends, not only upon his talent, but upon his social origins"(Blumberg 1972:411). However, this may not be evident to most people.

There is no doubt that Boston College is viewed as a very elite university, which is to say, that it is made up of students from wealthy and prestigious families. "Each year, the University awards more than $38 million in need-based scholarships, grants, loans and employment to more than 68% of its students"(Student Services). Approximately 30% of students at Boston College do not need any type of financial assistance from the school in order to fund their education. Furthermore, although most of the tuition is covered by financial aid for some students, there are many who receive only a few hundred or thousand dollars in aid. These latter students and their families cover the rest of the cost on their own. Overall, it is an upper-middle class campus. However, this was not always the case. Boston College used to be a place for local students from generally working and middle class backgrounds. Over time, its reputation has changed, along with its admissions. It is very difficult, especially as a student on this campus, not to recognize this trend. Almost everyone, students as well as faculty, assumes that everyone else is rather "well off." "…Individuals who are third-generation upper-middle class generally take high culture and cosmopolitanism for granted, viewing them as an integral part of their lives"(Lamont 1992:168). Attending this university practically defines a person as being part of the upper-middle class. It is not too difficult to recognize how this situation could be problematic for those students who are part of the working class. This problem was found in a similar situation, among working class law students attending a prestigious law school:

However, identification with the
working class began to diminish
soon after these students entered
law school…Although initially
proud of their accomplishments,
they soon came to define themselves
as different and their backgrounds
a burden(Granfield 1991:335,336).

Imagine having to explain this difference to someone every time a person is wrongly assumed to be part of the upper-middle class. This situation must be sometimes so awkward that clarification is simply ignored. In their minds, these working class students may instead become almost classless, as their true class is now obviously inferior. This problem can easily be related to those of a racial minority:

…in order to think and act white
enough to be rewarded by whites
or white institutions like the
schools, a minority person must
give up his or her own minority-
group attitudes, ways of thinking,
and behaving, and, of course,
must give up or lose his or her
own minority identity(Weis 1988:177).

Is it possible that there is anyone else out there who can relate to the struggles of these working class students at Boston College? It is highly probable that they do not believe so. This leads to the question that is the basis of my hypothesis. Is there a sense of class consciousness among working class students at Boston College? My hypothesis is that there is no real class consciousness among these students, and that perhaps it has been wiped out by a campus that is too ingrained in upper-middle class values and assumptions.

It is important first to understand how Boston College is defined as an upper-middle class campus. Very simply, most of the students who attend come from upper-middle class families. These students bring their values, beliefs, habits, etc. with them to college. When they arrive, they find that most of the students that they meet share, or appear to share, these same characteristics. Most of the dorm rooms on this campus contain many of the same items: stereos, VCRs, computers, televisions, closets full of expensive clothes. The parking garages are filled with sports and luxury cars. Flyers invade the campus with packages for spring break trips to Florida, the Bahamas, and Mexico. In fact, this could very well be one of the reasons why many students chose to attend Boston College. Feeling that they are part of the majority, it becomes very comfortable and natural to express these shared characteristics, so much so that they become the mainstream. "It is not surprising that those who wield power in a society consider themselves to be the most highly developed and go on to judge other social groups against their norms of developmental adequacy"(Steinitz 1986:11). All of a sudden, those who are not part of this mainstream, such as working class students, start to disappear, or become repressed. For example, a recent article in The Heights, the campus newspaper, illustrated this point well. The article was framed as a debate over shopping at The Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch. These are two clothing stores that are well known to be very expensive and "preppie." The Gap was discussed as being less expensive because you could buy a pair of pants for only $50.00 instead of $80.00 at the other store. However, it was shown that Abercrombie and Fitch is taking over the Boston College campus, because most of the students buy their clothes there. Whoever wrote this article is assuming that everyone on this campus can afford to and does shop there. What about those who cannot afford these clothes? They are ignored by the article as both shoppers and students on this campus. If a university newspaper is supposed to indicate and represent campus interests and values, then this perfectly demonstrates how Boston College is obsessed with those of the upper-middle class.

It appears that the situation of working class students is very marginal. That is to say, they are residing in an environment that is overwhelmingly full of upper-middle class students, yet they are not a part of this class. "…becoming upwardly mobile turns working-class youth into young adults trapped in the margins between two worlds, viewed as alien by their working-class peers and the middle-class people they emulate"(Steinitz 1986:227). They are sitting right on the edges of this environment, looking in, but they are never invited to join. Sometimes they may try to appear as if a true member, in order to be accepted, but this is rarely ever successful. "…individuals who try to cross cultural or language boundaries, may experience both internal opposition or identity crisis and external opposition or peer and community pressures"(Weis 1988:176).

Imitation does not ever change their position, it only hides it. All of these factors work to suggest that these students are outside of one group, as opposed to being part of a totally different group. Being kept on the margins functions to make sure that they are kept from realizing their class consciousness, and so will not pose a threat to social order as it is known. "Becoming college students is also thought to make them marginal: feeling ‘tenuously included’ in middle-class culture, they are assumed to be too dependent on the existing order to raise political questions…"(Steinitz 1986:11). Furthermore, their family background has already had some sort of an effect on their ability to question. "The authoritarian environment that working class students experience discourages them from questioning…"(Gos 1995:31). Their experience of marginality only aids in strengthening this inability to question.

Victoria Steinitz and Ellen Solomon conducted a study of working-class youths from different areas. One of their studies was of a group of students who attended a more affluent high school. "…these young people feel different in some essential way from everyone else and marginal to all the groups of peers they see around them"(Steinitz 1986:140). Steinitz and Solomon found evidence that this situation was very distressful for these working-class students, and did, in fact, make them feel very marginal. "During high school, all came to think of themselves as disadvantaged members of an affluent community. Their ‘I’ is linked to no ‘we,’ and ‘they’ are everywhere…"(Steinitz 1986:139). They saw themselves as outside of this more affluent category, yet forced to reside in it. This caused a lot of confusion as to where these youth fit into the scheme of things. It also caused a lot of anger towards those of the more affluent class. This is the very same situation that I imagine is occurring on the Boston College campus.

My hypothesis, once again, is that there is no class consciousness among working class students at Boston College. In order to test it, I have conducted a number of interviews with these types of students. I have looked for indicators which show that my hypothesis is correct. One of the things that class consciousness necessitates is organization that functions to further group interests. Is there any type of organization on this campus for working class students? I needed to determine whether or not these students feel that they are part of a larger group that encompasses others just like them. It is important to know whether or not this group is recognized, and by whom. I looked for feelings of isolation or neglect, of not fitting in or being ignored. Simply put, I determined whether or not these students know that they are not the only ones, and what they are doing about that. Do they group together with these other people to further their interests, or do they stay hidden among the masses for fear of embarrassment or simply because of apathy? My suspicion goes along with the latter scenario.


This topic is one that I can relate to very easily. Being from a working class background myself, I am interested to see how other students in similar situations have handled their experience at such an upper-middle class college. There has not been much attention given to this group of people. Much attention is mainly given to the experiences and issues of those from minority groups based on race.

Administrators might be expected to
censure clubs and teams which
flagrantly discriminate against
racial minorities. But social class
is not similarly suspect and
administrators are unlikely to
intervene in the relative isolation
of working class students
(Spangler 1979:35).

However, it is very likely that the experiences of these groups would closely parallel
those of class-based minority groups. "Research on working-class youths suggest that the devaluation they feel as well as their related identity adjustments resemble the behavioral patterns associated with other stigmatized groups"(Granfield 1991:332). It is important to recognize that this group of students does exist somewhere out there, and that these students probably have some very interesting and important things to say about their experiences which could enlighten everyone as to the variety of experiences that occur on a college campus.

My parents divorced when I was in elementary school. This left me living with my mother, sister and brother. Even before the divorce, we never really had too much money. Obviously, this situation was exacerbated after the divorce. My mother worked late nights as a bartender to support us, living mainly off of tips and food stamps. When my siblings and I were old enough, it was just assumed that we would work in order to fund most of our clothes and leisure activities. My entire family had always had to work, and we were no different. Both of my parents started working full time right out of high school. The fact that I was going to college did not change much. I have had to work at college during every semester that I have been here, and I always knew that this would be the case. I thought that it was normal. "Most blue-collar parents assume that the only help they’ll give their children will be to let them live at home without cost. The rest, the children will have to do for themselves"(Hassan and Reynolds 1988:6). It was not until I came to Boston College that I realized that I was an exception.

In the first few days of my freshman year, I met many people who were obviously very different from me. My roommate is a good example. She came from a suburban area and a fairly well-off family. Her father was a vice-president of his company, and her mother worked there as well. My roommate decided that she was not going to work at school, so as to save time for other things. Meanwhile, her parents would deposit money into her bank account whenever she needed it. This idea seemed unbelievable to me. The fact alone that she had the choice not to work was foreign to me. Never mind the idea that her parents would just always give her money. I soon came to realize that she was not alone in this situation. Most other students were experiencing the same thing. They were merely expected to be students, because it was always so expected of them. This was just one factor that I found which seemed to separate me from the majority.

There eventually came to be other issues that indicated my uniqueness. I found out that I was one of few that I knew who were receiving some type of financial aid, besides loans. Other students could more easily afford things that I could not, like nice clothes, cars, computers, stereos, etc.. I very quickly realized that I was in a much different atmosphere than I had ever encountered, and this realization was not too comforting.

The way that I attempted to deal with the situation was to try to blend in. I started buying the right clothes, although at sale prices. I used scholarship money to buy a computer, which was built for me. I wanted to appear as if I were a part of the rest of the crowd, in order to avoid humiliation or ridicule. "Although working-class students lacked the cultural capital of higher social classes, they began to realize that they could successfully mimic their more privileged counterparts"(Granfield 1991:340). However, deep inside myself, I always knew where I really came from. I have become bitter from trying so hard to assimilate, when I know how natural and easy it is for these other students. I have suppressed my real class identity, and let myself be overrun by the majority values and norms. From what I can see, I am not the only one.

Some working class students can
go to college and, with a little
remediation and a lot of work, be
successful…But the percentages are
against them, and those who do
succeed come away from the battle
suffering huge losses, most notably
a separation from their families and
communities-in effect, from their
heritage(Gos 1995:33).

I know that there are more students on this campus like myself. However, we all seem to be hiding from each other. The people who realize that they are not alone, are not doing anything about it, and those who think that they are alone, are not able to. This is what constitutes my belief that there is no real class consciousness among working class students at Boston College.

Obviously, there is the possibility that I am wrong. There very well may be a strong feeling of class consciousness among working class students at Boston College, even if there is no organization to it. However, being part of the working class myself, I do not even feel it, but I cannot generalize just from myself. It is necessary to find out from a number of students in the same situation how they feel about this campus, and what has shaped these feelings. It will be interesting to see exactly how strong of an effect there has been from the upper-middle class mystique, if any at all.

Literature Review:

    1. The Impact Of Social Class, edited by Paul Blumberg: I am using this book for its illustration of some of Marxist theory. It also discusses some of the attitudes of the working class, as they relate to education, and how the educational system itself fosters inequality.
    2. The Psychology Of Social Classes, Richard Centers: This book deals mostly with the idea and importance of class consciousness. It puts forth Marx’s own ideas, and offers further discussion and thoughts about them.
    3. The American Class Structure, Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl: I have used this book in defining the categories that are labeled working class and upper-middle class. It also provides insight into the attitudes of the upper-middle class towards college.
    4. Money, Morals, and Manners, Michele Lamont: This book focuses on the upper-middle class. Many of the generalizations about this class can be checked against this book, and validated.
    5. "Small Winnings: Blue Collar Students In College And At Work," Eve Spangler: This article illustrates empirical data about one of the variables that I will be measuring. In her study, Spangler finds that working class students are less involved in social activity than middle-class students. This lends to the idea of isolation among working class students, and thus the absence of class consciousness.
    6. Starting Out: Class and Community in the Lives of Working-Class Youth, Victoria Anne Steinitz and Ellen Rachel Solomon: This is also an empirical study on working class youth. A group of working class students attending a more affluent high school are among the subjects studied. It is found that they do feel the pressures of marginalization and are not driven or unified to fight against it.
    7. Class, Race, & Gender In American Education, edited by Lois Weis: This book gives some insight into the experiences of racial minorities, as well as class minorities. Some interesting parallels are found between the two that lend support to my hypothesis, such as the same ideas of marginalization and assimilation.
    8. Beyond Silenced Voices, edited by Lois Weis and Michelle Fine: Like the book above, this book also deals with race issues and education.
    9. "Making It By Faking It: Working-Class Students in an Elite Academic Environment," Robert Granfield: This article is also based on empirical data, and is a study of highly successful, working class students who gained admission into a prestigious Ivy League law school. The students encountered many of the same identity problems that I believe I will find in my study.
    10. The Long Interview, Grant McCracken: I intend to use this book for methodological purposes. It outlines the procedures that are needed in order to perform successful interviews. It provides a method that is intended to conserve and maximize time and effort.
    11. A Practical Guide to Research Methods, Gerhard Lang and George D. Heiss: This will also be used for methodological purposes. It suggests ways in which problems can be prevented, interviews can be structured, and guides that can be used to further structure any information received.
    12. "Working Class Students at Selective Colleges," Thomas E. Hassan and Jane E. Reynolds: This article illustrates some of the reasons why there has been a decline in attendance of working class students in elite colleges. High tuition is stated as a factor, in conjunction with parents’ ambivalence towards college.
    13. "Overcoming Social Class Markers: Preparing Working Class Students for College," Michael Gos: This article discusses some of the problems that working class students encounter in college as a result of their background, and strategies that can be used to deal with these problems.

Conceptualization and Methodology:

My research deals with many variables that are relatively connected to each other. All stem from the idea of social class. Most importantly, my main focus centers around the ideas of the working class, upper-middle class and class consciousness. There are also several sub-categories within class consciousness. How are each of these used in relation to my research, and how have I been able to connect them to my subjects?

My interview subjects were students from the working class that attend Boston College. It must be clear what is meant by working class. Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl define the working class in their book, The American Class Structure, as semi-skilled blue-collar workers and some low-level white-collar workers, who are employed at routinized and mechanized jobs. They earn less than middle class families and are less secure in their incomes. Relatively few having training beyond a high school diploma. In general, they work hard for what they have, and are in greater fear of losing it. They earn enough to live on, but it is usually on a day to day basis. They can provide a decent life for their families, with little room for luxury. Unfortunately, this luxury often includes sending children to college, especially a very prestigious one. "Part of the ambivalence toward obtaining a college education reflects the same emphasis on security. Even a highly talented working-class youth is not sure what he can do with a college diploma…"(Blumberg 1972:193). Coming from this type of background is what defines the working class students that I have sought for my study. The following are some questions that were asked during the interview in order to ensure that they define themselves in this way:

    1. Are you the first person in your family to go to college?
    2. What do your parents do for a living?
    3. Was it a struggle to send you to college?

These questions aided in making my subject group a valid one, and directed the interview into the topic areas that were necessary to discuss.

Next it is important to clarify what it means to be part of the upper-middle class. Once again, Gilbert and Kahl provide a simple definition. This group is the most shaped by formal education. "The term upper-middle class is used for convenience and to differentiate between the college-educated population and the broader aggregate that appropriates the middle-class label in the United States" (Lamont 1992:200). A college degree is usually the minimum. They are university trained professionals and managers with comfortable incomes. Basically, they have good jobs with authority, independence and stability. They provide a very comfortable life for their families and can afford many luxuries. These luxuries include vacations, clothes, and the latest technologies. Sending children to college is not a problem, and is usually planned for and counted on. "For upper-status students, these pressures toward college are almost automatic, and only those with severe handicaps in intelligence or personality fail to succumb to them"(Gilbert 1993:180). This is the background from which most of the students at Boston College are coming. These values and habits are shaping the environment in which working class students have to reside. It was necessary to discover whether or not these working class students recognize this, and how they are affected by it. The following questions attempted to do this:

    1. How do you view the majority of students at Boston College? Do they share your background?
    2. Do you feel that you fit in with the values or trends at this university? For example, is your fashion the same, or your possessions?

Not all of the students that I interviewed have the same outlook of this campus, and it is important to take that into account.

Probably the most important variable in this study is class consciousness. This is what the hypothesis is mainly centered around. Is there a working class consciousness at Boston College? First of all, what does that mean? Marx defined class consciousness as the feeling of belonging to a group or class that holds common interests. It is a kind of unity among people with the same experiences and backgrounds, as they relate to social class. This unity often drives people to come together and work towards bettering the position of their class and furthering their interests. "…Marx makes use of two expressions: he calls class ‘an sich’ (in itself), a class not yet conscious of itself as such; he calls class ‘fur sich’ (for itself), a class already conscious of its social role"(Centers 1961:22). The upper-middle class consciousness is prevalent on the Boston College campus, and may even be so strong that it has wiped out the existence of any other class consciousness, such as that of the working class. This possibility is what I intended to discover in my research. Through interviewing my subjects I attempted to do so, using questions such as the following:

    1. Do you feel that there are other people on this campus who share your experiences or background?
    2. Do you feel that there is a voice for the concerns of students like you on this campus? Are they even recognized?
    3. Do you feel that this environment has worked to divide you from other people like yourself in order to ignore you more easily?

I believed that these students are probably aware that they are not the only ones like themselves on this campus, but that they are kept from doing anything about it. They are not unified and so cannot work together to further their interests. In fact, they most likely feel embarrassed about their position, and so would rather hide it than make it more evident. "The recognition among working-class students that they were able to imitate upper-class students increasingly encouraged them to conceal their backgrounds" (Granfield 1991:340). This comes from the experience of being on this campus, where if you stray from the mainstream, you are isolated and ignored. There is no room for any other option when the majority will not allow it. If you are not part of the mainstream, then you might as well not even exist.

Within the idea of class consciousness, there are other variables which I chose to look at, which aided in indicating the presence or lack of class consciousness. One such variable is isolation. Do working-class students feel that they are isolated on this campus? If they do not feel that there are other students that they can relate to, then perhaps they do not socialize with anyone, or with very few others. Also, they may not have much time to socialize. They are most likely working part-time jobs, or maybe they have to commute because they cannot afford dormitory housing, in which case they spend limited time on campus. In Eve Spangler’s study of blue collar students in college, she dealt with this issue of isolation. Using a survey conducted by the American Council on Education, she found that one of the main differences between working class students and those of the middle class is their level of social interaction. "Yet, the ACE data indicate that working class students participate less than middle class students in the informal social life of the campus"(Spangler 1979:26). What is more important is that this isolation is found to be almost intentional:

Highly attractive people with ample
resources then select others like
themselves as interaction partners
and exclude less privileged actors
from their exchange networks. This
pattern…proceeds down the scale of
resources until stable interaction
groups emerge, each group composed
of persons with similar resources
(Spangler 1979:34).


Upper class students intentionally socialize with those of their own status, or those above them, because they are perceived as the only ones who will be beneficial to their success. Thus, working class students are isolated from these networks, as they are seen to have no useful connections. They are left to socialize with those of their own class, but only if they can find or know of them. Some questions which delved into these issues are:

    1. How much of your time at college do you think is spent socializing with friends or involved in group activities?
    2. Do you generally socialize with people who are similar to you in some way?
    3. Is there any reason that inhibits the time you are able to spend on leisure activities?

Whatever the reason may be, isolation would not indicate the organization that class consciousness necessitates.

Another important factor in determining class consciousness is the level of assimilation. Are these working-class students trying to hide their background by attempting to fit into the mainstream? It is possible that the only way in which these students can find to cope with their difficulties is to pretend that they are not who they really are. "Working-class students disengaged from their previous identity by concealing their class backgrounds… these working-class law students often adopted identities that were associated with the more elite social classes" (Granfield 1991:331). This could leave them in one of two situations. Either they keep the knowledge of where they come from inside of themselves, and only try to deceive the outside world, or they may start to lose their real identity, deceiving even themselves. A few more questions were:

    1. Do you usually try to go along with the trends of the majority on campus? Do you spend more money on things than you can really afford, just to fit in?
    2. Do you think you can relate to your family or hometown more or less since you have been here? What about old high school friends?

Once again, whichever the case may be, the same result is produced. By denying their background, they inhibit themselves from ever realizing that they are not alone, and will never be able to come together in their common struggle.

The next important aspect of class consciousness is organization. This is the most important element in achieving social change. Only through organizing can a collective voice be produced, which can act in furthering and fighting for common interests. Is there any organized force at Boston College that is fighting for the working-class student cause?:

    1. Are you a member of many groups or clubs on campus?
    2. If yes, what is the main focus or purpose of the group?

Even if these students realize that they are part of this existing class, that is not enough. It was through organization that Marx imagined social reforms. It was important to find out if any such organization does exist.

I have conducted interviews of working-class students at Boston College, in order to obtain my data and explore these issues. The subjects were obtained through on-campus advertising, speaking to classrooms, and people who I know myself to be eligible for the research. These advertisements were put out in mid-January, and requested those who are the first in their family to attend college. I had hoped to receive about 20 or so eligible subjects by mid-February. Interviews were conducted over a 2 month period, being done in early April. This left the rest of April and early May to analyze my data and finalize my thesis.

My expectation was that there would be a consensus among my subject group as to the kinds of experiences they have encountered and the issues that they have had to deal with, being of the working class in an environment which is primarily upper-middle class. My interview questions were centered around the variables that I have previously outlined, leaving room for others which I may not have been aware of. I believe that each question sparked the same types of responses or attitudes, illustrating the lack of class consciousness among these students. Although individual experiences did vary, it was important only to find traces of the common themes that I outlined in my variables.


It has been said by some sociologists that sociology is supposed to make some people feel uncomfortable. The discipline is not meant to simply go along with the norm and make everybody feel good about themselves. Rather, its purpose is to delve deeper inside what is taken to be natural or inevitable and find contradictions or limitations. It tries to explain society and all of its aspects so that it can be better understood and improved. Most sociologists have this goal in mind when they choose to conduct a study. They ask themselves how their research may change the perspective from which people view their world. I too must ask myself this very same question.

I hope to have achieved a double-sided impact with my research project. This only seems natural, whereas I examined the experiences of working class students on an upper-middle class campus, Boston College. Therefore, this study can not only benefit working class students themselves, but it may also enlighten those that comprise the rest of this campus.

My hypothesis is that there is no class consciousness among working class students at Boston College. Whether or not this was found to be true, the results can be beneficial. If it was found that I am wrong, and that there is class consciousness, then a number of people may find comfort. Those working class students who did not realize that this is the case, such as myself, can be reassured that they definitely are not alone. There are other people out there who share some common experiences and backgrounds, who can be utilized for support and unity. They do not have be embarrassed or hidden from public view, as they do have a share in the community. This information may have otherwise not been made known to them, and they may have continued to feel isolated or ignored.

On the other hand, many more may benefit if my hypothesis was confirmed. If there is no class consciousness among these students, then it needs to be brought to light. As long as people continue to pretend that there is only one important group or characteristic on this campus, then nothing will ever be done for anyone outside of that group, particularly working class students. None of their problems or ideas will ever be heard or acted upon. Everyone is so concerned that racial minority students are not being given enough power or a voice, which is very commendable, but they are not the only ones. What about this other minority, that is never thought about? Who is fighting for their rights or best interests? It is obviously not the administration. These students need to realize that there are others like them out there, and that in order to gain anything, they need unity or organization in order to be heard. "Students respond to school in ways that often contribute to their own, less-valued, position in society, thus contributing to the maintenance of structured inequalities"(Weis 1988:2). They must refuse to be pushed aside, neglected and silenced, or they risk being engulfed by this upper-middle class system. "…widespread school failure does not occur in minority groups that are positively oriented towards both their own and the dominant culture, do not perceive themselves as inferior…and are not alienated from their own cultural values"(Weis 1993:105). Hopefully, the other result of this study will be to ensure that there is now someone who will be there to listen.

The administration and the majority of this campus must open their eyes to this problem. This study is a good way to do that. They must be shown that what they are doing is unacceptable, or at least insufficient:

Our work points to the need for a
complex awareness on the part of
educators of working-class youth…
helping these youth arrive at a
collective sense of what they are
undertaking is likely to make them
more resilient in their struggles
(Steinitz 1986:240).

They cannot argue for the rights and equality of one only type of minority group, and then feel that they are all done. It seems very clear whose interests it is that they are trying to serve. For example, why would a university not guarantee that it could provide four years of housing to each of its students, making most students have to live off-campus in over-priced apartments for one year? Unfortunately, rent is not usually taken into account for financial aid as it is when a student lives on-campus. Therefore, many students may not be able to afford this type of situation, and thus cannot accept their admittance here. This would not be a problem for upper-middle class students. The extremely high price for tuition itself further illustrates this idea. "And the working class students’ concerns over the high price tag and large loan indebtedness may be magnified by worries about four years’ lost income"(Hassan and Reynolds 1988:7). These methods tend to ensure that mainly elite students are comprising most of the population on this campus. It is time that this university realizes that everyone knows what they are doing.

I am not sure if this research will inspire any dramatic changes on the part of Boston College. I would certainly hope so, as a working class student myself. It is important to recognize, however, that it often takes a long time for most changes to occur. The first step is to bring the problem to light, so that it at least cannot be ignored anymore. If at least one student begins to feel a little better about his or her situation, then I have been successful. People must realize that assumptions can be very harmful and destructive. As much as many of the students here would like to believe it, the world is not a perfect entity, where everyone is just like them and from the same type of background. It is time to "prick their bubble of pretense," so to speak.



Data and Analysis:

A. The process

I began my search for interview subjects in early January. I employed methods such as hanging flyers around the campus and speaking to classrooms of students, in order to attract the interest of those who were eligible and willing to help. I started receiving phone calls not too long after this process began. Interviews were then scheduled and took place from early February to early April. The interviews themselves ranged from a half-hour to an hour, and closely followed the interview guide contained in the appendix. Although my questions remained relatively constant throughout each interview, my subjects were given the freedom to expand on any feelings, thoughts or experiences that they may have had. The following data is comprised of thirteen such interviews. Although the response that I received was not as large as I had initially hoped for, I believe that the information obtained reflects clearly and fully the experiences that I had intended to discover.

B. Working class

Because this research deals primarily with working class students, it was necessary to ensure that my subjects fit into this requirement. This task was initially faced in the beginning of the search phase, through my advertisements and requests for specific volunteers, and was also later completed within the interviews themselves. As mentioned previously, the working class are defined as semi-skilled, blue-collar workers and some low level white-collar workers, who are less secure in their incomes and rarely have training beyond high school. 7 of the 13 students that I interviewed are the first ones in their family to go to college. Education is an important defining factor in regards to class status, as it has long been a marker for middle, or more importantly, upper-middle class people. The parents of these students were generally teachers, housewives, secretaries, postal workers, bookkeepers, etc. For a more detailed list, please see Appendix A. In addition, all 13 students that I interviewed are attending Boston College with the help of some sort of financial aid, whether it be loans, grants or scholarships. Financing their education is definitely not an easy task for their parents to undertake. However, it is one that has always been deemed essential. There is an overwhelming sense from the families of these students that college is a necessity. These parents understand the importance of a college education today in order to succeed. It is important for them that their children make a better life for themselves and that they do not have to struggle as much. The parents seem to realize the limitations placed on them on account of their lack of education, and do not want the same limitations on their children. All of my subjects grew up with the idea of college as mostly a given. It was never really a question that they would go to school. This idea has been instilled in them by their parents, who, for the most part, did not have the chance to experience college for themselves. This lack of experience on the part of the parents has caused problems in some cases, simply in the fact that it can prevent them from helping their children get through some of the normal struggles of college life. Heather expressed:

They worked really hard to make
sure that I got opportunities
that they never had. Now I have
those opportunities that they
never had, and I go to them for
advice, and they don’t know what
to tell me.

These problems started early on for some of my subjects, as they found themselves filling out applications and financial aid forms on their own, or with little help. After all, most of their parents have never done it before either. Some of these problems have persisted throughout their time at college, as it is difficult to not be able to talk to their parents about problems that neither has ever faced before. As Jean told me about her mother, "I know part of her doesn’t understand where I’m coming from here now." Tom agreed, "It’s hard for them to relate because they’re not here… and they don’t know how the college life goes." At the same time, most of them can appreciate their parents more for the things that they have done to get them to college. Those who are still in the early stages of adaptation to college can relate to their families more. Erik stated, "I realize how similar I am to them as opposed to the people here, so I talk to them more." Most have learned to work through and deal with these problems on their own. All in all, the parents understand how great of an opportunity and experience college is for their children, and are truly proud. Jodi told me, "They know that it’s a huge thing, going to BC, especially coming from where I come from." The most important thing to me is that my subjects believe themselves to be part of the working class, even though some of them may be considered by others to be part of a higher class. It is the feeling and knowledge of being part of a class that is not considered to be the norm at Boston College that is the focus of this study, and this is why it is the student’s opinion that matters the most. All of my subjects expressed feelings of belonging to the working class, whether it be based on their parents salary or occupations. Furthermore, all have experienced financial and/or emotional struggle over attending Boston College, which has forced them to face up to and question their backgrounds.

C. Upper-middle class

It is now important to evaluate whether or not my subjects feel that Boston College is primarily an upper-middle class campus. This issue was also encountered within the interviews. The upper-middle class has been defined as university trained professionals and managers with comfortable incomes, job authority, stability and independence. When questioned about their feelings and attitudes about the campus and the majority of students at Boston College, my subjects provided some rather strong responses. The campus itself is very pleasing to most of them, and is one of many reasons why they chose to come here. Most agree that the buildings, technology and resources are excellent. However, it is the enormous wealth that comprises the school that amazes people so much. Jodi told me, "I had no idea what rich meant until I got to this school, then I saw rich." Many found the environment to be dramatically different from where they grew up and went to school. Heather expressed, "I was so shocked that I wasn’t automatically just like everybody else, I felt this frantic need to catch up." She also felt, "It wasn’t until I got here that I realized the difference between where I am and where my whole family is." There were a few who had the privilege of attending affluent high schools as well. However, even they were surprised by the difference of actually living in the elite environment. Even though many had never experienced such an environment before, it was something that they had already been expecting. Dave B. told me, "My mom was real worried about me coming and being with a bunch of rich kids." Boston College undoubtedly has a reputation of being high class, and these students have found that there is truth behind that. There were stronger attitudes about the majority of students who attend Boston College. My subjects overwhelmingly felt that most people at this school do not share their backgrounds. Tom expressed, "Most of the kids here are definitely from more affluent families." Amy displayed a bit more frustration, "It’s all white people, all white upper class…sometimes I just want to shake people." My subjects believe that most of the students here have been sheltered and cannot understand the types of problems that these working class students have to face. Jodi stated, "People don’t even really realize because they’re so surrounded by prosperity and wealth." Furthermore, she felt, "Everyone takes everything for granted that they have because it’s just there." The fact that there are so many upper-middle class students on this campus makes them the mainstream, and sometimes these working class students feel that they are not a part of that. Erik stated, "I don’t fit into the mainstream now, the rich, prep school background." Dave also expressed, "I don’t own anything from Abercrombie & Fitch. I didn’t even know about them until I came here." Most of these students cannot afford to go to Mexico on spring break, or buy a lot of expensive clothes, or go out all the time. Amy stated, "I don’t shop at Abercrombie, but if I see clearance I do." They see their lack of high social status and wealth as a definite contrast to most of the other students at this school. Jeanine stated, "I feel like here when people say blue-collar, they mean almost white trash." Fortunately, many of them feel that this is not too big of a problem, and that it is not very noticeable. Most have part-time jobs and can use their money for the things that seem to be most important or necessary to them. It is difficult to meet people and make friends sometimes because many are seen as being fake or materialistic, at least on the surface. Erin observed, "A lot of kids here seem like they were born with a silver spoon in their mouth." However, everyone conceded that it is necessary to give people a chance and to try to get to know people for who they really are. Even though some have had bad experiences, my subjects have found many nice and sincere people and have made some very good friends. As Mike stated, "The students here are definitely well off I think, but they’re still just regular people just like me." Chris also agrees that you need to talk to people, "Maybe they’ll be just like myself and can’t afford GAP clothes." However, it can not be denied that Boston College is, overwhelmingly, an upper-middle class campus. My subjects do view the majority of students here as coming from wealthier and more established backgrounds. So, how has this fact affected those who do not fit into that mold?

D. Class consciousness

The main focus of this research is to try to determine whether or not there is a working class consciousness on this campus. Again, Marx defined class consciousness as the knowledge of being part of a group that shares the same interests and burdens, and so must work together to succeed. In order for this to be possible, the students have to believe, or be sure, that there are other working class students other than themselves on this campus, and feel that they can be a support for one another. When asked if they felt that there were other students like themselves on this campus, I received a few different responses. Some are very sure that they are out there, because they are their friends or they have met them in classes. Jean stated, "We found each other through the years." Although, in the grand scheme of things, they are not too sure how many more of them there are. Others are very unsure or pessimistic about it. Although they do not know specific numbers, they feel it to be few. Still others think like Jodi, in that, "There’s gotta be other people like me here." It appears as if working class students exist as a phantom presence, that not too many people can see, but they think that it is there. My subjects explained this phenomena on account of the fact that it is hard to determine someone’s class on first appearances. Mike noticed, "It’s not really something that’s discussed a lot." Even more interesting, Heather explained, "Maybe it’s just that we hide it well." It is obvious that there is no real certainty about the level of attendance of working class students at Boston College, and so no true consciousness can be formed. Working class students have no markers that can be used to identify themselves to each other. In fact, most of them actually work towards achieving that effect. These students are simply not conscious of the exact presence of other students like themselves. The remainder of the interviews delved deeper into trying to discover why exactly this is the case, looking at isolation, assimilation, and lack of organization as factors contributing to this problem.



a. Isolation

As mentioned previously, Eve Spangler conducted a study that showed that working class students have a lower level of socialization than students who are above them in social class. I attempted to find out if this was true with my subjects as well. On average, all of my subjects said that they socialized about two to four hours a day, during the week. This includes time spent with roommates in the dorm and at meals in the dining halls. Most of the students spend the rest of their time studying or working part-time jobs. The people who they socialize with are generally similar to themselves, in regards to interests and hobbies, but their socioeconomic backgrounds vary. Many of the working class students have friends at both their class level and levels above them. As previously stated, it is often difficult to determine a person’s class on first appearances, and so many people can become friends before finding out the other’s background. Heather felt that, "since you can’t point me out, then I’m going to do my best to make sure you can’t tell." In most cases, this works out fine. However, some of my subjects have been shunned and have lost friends once this information has been revealed. Kelly has observed, "people making friends based on what their parents did." This also goes along with Eve Spangler’s idea that higher class students will only associate with other high class students in order to make "valuable" connections for the future. Fortunately, this does not seem to be a very widespread problem among the students that I have interviewed. In general, it does not seem that these working class students are isolated on campus, and they do have some time allowed for socialization, but it is not as easy for them to find solid friends right away, as they must be wary of those who will reject them. Also, as a result of the clear lack of knowledge and presence of other working class students, it is necessary to form groups of friends from various backgrounds. This prevents the working class students from unifying among only themselves, and, thus, prohibits class consciousness. This is in contrast to those upper-middle class students who have no problem finding others who share their social background.

b. Assimilation

It has been shown that Boston College is primarily an upper-middle class campus. Obviously, this puts working class students, by definition, out of the mainstream. It has been discussed that it is not always easy to determine a person’s class right away. Why is this? Similar to the working class law students attending a prestigious law school in the study mentioned earlier, working class students can walk through this campus just like anyone else and not be spotted. Jean stated, "I can look like the richest girl and whatever. I can put it off, you know. I’ve done it for awhile." This has proven to be somewhat of an advantage for them. Blending in with the masses makes it a lot easier to avoid uneasiness and rejection. Erin stated, "I’ve seen it, kids that dress different get looks and comments made." Unfortunately, it has been discussed that this also makes it harder for working class students to find one another, or at least recognize each other. I found that many of my subjects fell into this trap very early on. Heather stated, "Because I lived here, it’s like this world apart, and I forgot how normal people live…they all have all this money…I started to buy into it." She was not the only one. Jodi also expressed, "I know that just being surrounded by these people, I kind of forgot for a little while." There are obvious differences between those people who are in their first years at Boston College, and those who are a little older. As students adjust to being here, they find it hard to be their true selves. It is easier to simply try to fit in, in order to make friends. Heather admitted, "It’s just become natural now that you sort of fake it." Initially, the environment is a lot more overwhelming. Being thrown into this world where the majority of people are not like you, and cannot relate to you, can be very unsettling. However, as they get older and find their own friends and groups, many feel better and more secure about themselves. Jean told me, "Now I’m so secure with myself that I don’t give a shit about anyone else and what they say about me." Mike also expressed, "I found my niche, I guess you could say. I’ve made good friends." They can be themselves around those that they trust and know very well. Some of my subjects did feel this way in the beginning. However, I cannot help but notice that these were the subjects that could be considered by some to be of a higher class. For some of these working class students, the stress of feeling marginal was so bad that they considered transferring to other schools. Again, it was not until they found good friends that they felt better about their situation. Mike explained:

With my friends that I’ve made
at BC, appearance isn’t a thing
that matters to them, whereas a
lot of other BC students I think
it definitely does, and I think
that comes from their social
background, their upbringing,
their friends at home, and just
the way they went through high
school, but I see it as an
advantage to be who you are,
guess, and not to conform to the
"Abercrombie" way of life.

It is obvious that the upper-middle class consciousness at this school has a major effect on the way in which working class students view themselves in relation to it. By not feeling part of the mainstream, working class students work towards trying to blend into it. This assimilation provides them with the comfort of knowing that they cannot be singled out. Unfortunately, they are not only hiding from their true selves, but they are also hiding from each other. This, once again, prevents the formation of class consciousness. Fortunately, this assimilation seems to diminish as the students get older and more secure with themselves. However, at the same time, they are also becoming complacent with the status quo, and are only learning how to function within it, instead of how to change it.

c. Organization

Throughout this whole adaptation process, there is little room allowed for organization. This, according to Marx, is the most important element necessary for social change. Because working class students are not recognizable to each other on a wide level, it is difficult to create a unified group. They cannot become a class "fur sich," or for themselves, as Marx would have predicted. This is an effect of the assimilation that they are tempted into. Although they can find each other individually, and create small groups, they are interspersed among all other types of people and all other socioeconomic backgrounds. Hence, it is impossible to completely unite. The result is that the majority of my subjects feel that there is no voice for their concerns. However, the problem is that they do not know if they necessarily want one. Having a group or club to themselves would result in a very uncomfortable thing. Jeanine explained, "First of all, I bet a ton of people would be embarrassed to join just because money’s such an issue on this campus." It would point them out to everyone else. As Dave explained, "No one wants to admit it." People were nervous and unsure about such a group, and did not feel they wanted to be recognized. Erin felt, "You want to be recognized for difference, but you don’t necessarily want to be outcast too." It is not surprising that a group of people who feel that they need to adapt to the mainstream in order to be accepted, would not want any type of organization that would mark them otherwise. This also seemed to vary from those in their first years to those who were older. Obviously if a person is still in the stages of trying to blend in, a group such as this would defeat the purpose. Although some of the younger students felt that they could probably use such a group, it was mostly the older ones who recognized the need and usefulness of it. It takes a few years of reflection and maturation to recognize the benefits. It is unfortunate that those who probably would need it the most would not want to go. The upper-middle class consciousness has become so overwhelming, that students have chosen to not look for help in fear of being labeled an outsider. This overwhelming upper-middle class consciousness has also succeeded in convincing working class students of their need to assimilate, thus preventing their recognition of one another and unification. All of which translates into a lack of class consciousness. By keeping working class students on the margins, the campus avoids any backlash that they may have otherwise received.


This research has revealed some very interesting and unfortunate facts about the Boston College campus. It has shown that this school is made up of many different people, and yet it continues to focus on and revolve around a select group. Heather stated:

They have enough trouble talking
about people’s ethnicity
differences, but I’ve never
heard anybody talk at any of
these freshman mingler things
about ‘we must respect each
other’s socioeconomic differences.’"

Because of this focus, it has earned a reputation as a very elite and upper-middle class school. Erin stated, "I knew that it was rich, upper, white, middle class." Unfortunately, this reputation rings true, and will remain that way as long as the school has a vested interest in it. Boston College wants to be known as not just any other school, and so works in a way to ensure that. This view is shared by most of the students involved in this study. Tuition itself is seen as a big factor. Dave expressed, "I just don’t understand why they have to charge so much money." Jeanine explained a bit further, "A school that costs as much as this does obviously attracts a certain type of family." These students believe that by keeping such a large group of people surrounded by other people like themselves, behaviors and attitudes will be reinforced by each other. Jodi believes:

The majority of people are well
off. They’ve created this
educational environment where
they only cater to one class,
pretty much is a way of dividing
people. It’s keeping a big group
together thinking that everything’s
okay because they don’t have to see
what’s going on.

A group mentality is formed that is almost impossible to break, especially when it is continually supported. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for those outside of this group, and forces them to either conform or stay quiet. This goal has basically been obtained. There were also other complaints about financial issues that often came up. Most people had problems with the cost of books, sports games, and other activities. Jeanine stated, "A lot of teachers who you think would understand, don’t understand. ‘Oh just go off and buy this book that might be 100 bucks.’ That’s almost two weeks of work for me." According to Jean, "I don’t think BC realizes that not everyone is Mrs. Moneybags." This realization would obviously do a great deal to improve these students’ situation. However, they do not feel that they have any power, and believe that no one will hear them. Amy believes, "I don’t feel that what I say is going to make a big difference." Even further, the mainstream consciousness has gone so far as to convince working class students that they do not want to be heard anyway, or else they will be singled out. With this research, I hope to open at least some eyes to this problem. Too many people are blind to it, and Boston College needs to work harder or perhaps start working at all, towards trying to make people see. Chris feels, "A lot of people just don’t know how damn lucky they are to be here…If the administration can make students more aware of that, that would be nice." Jodi agreed, "It’s not made aware to people that they’re living in a condition of life that 90% of the world doesn’t live in." Unfortunately, this may never happen. One thing that upper-middle class people have is money, and money is hard to refuse. Jean believes, "Their clientele is rich and they know it." Kelly also expressed her feelings about the school, "They cater to people that have money and that have parents that donate." However, it should not take the place of merit, intelligence, or diligence. This is an educational institution, and it is time to stop living in ignorance.

I set out to prove that there is no class consciousness among working class students at Boston College. I did this because I felt it to be true in my own experiences, and needed to discover how others similar to me felt. In a way, I almost hoped to find myself to be wrong. That way I would not have to admit that there are real problems occurring on a campus that I truly have loved. However, that attitude does not help to solve the problem that is plaguing so many working class students. If I too contented myself with the status quo on this campus, than who is to say that anyone would ever bring it to light. At least I can be pleased with the knowledge that I have refused to simply accept it as the way that things are. Hopefully, I can cause others to do the same.








Appendix A





























































YES (w/twin)










Appendix B

Interview Guide:

  1. Are you the first person in your family to go to college?
  2. What do your parents do for a living?
  3. Was it a struggle to send you to college?
  4. What were, or are, your parents views on college?
  5. What were your first impressions of Boston College? Is it like anything you’ve known?
  6. How do you view the majority of students at Boston College? Do they share your background?
  7. Do you feel that you fit in at Boston College? In regards to fashion, possessions, vacations, things like that.
  8. Do you feel like there are other people on this campus who share your experiences or background?
  9. Do you feel that there is a voice for the concerns of students like yourself on this campus? If so, is that voice recognized?
  10. Do you feel that perhaps this campus has worked to divide you from people like yourself?
  11. How much of your time do you think is spent socializing with friends or in group activities?
  12. Are the people you socialize with more or less like you in some ways?
  13. Is there any reason that inhibits the time you can spend socializing, or on leisure activities?
  14. Are you a member of any groups or clubs on campus?
  15. If yes, what is the main focus or purpose of the group?
  16. Do you usually try to go along with the trends of the majority on campus? For example, do you spend more money on things than you cannot really afford, just to fit in?
  17. Do you think you can relate to your family or high school friends more or less since you have been here?
  18. What do you think Boston College can do to improve your situation on this campus?

I did not want to structure the interviews too tightly, as I was interested in hearing responses that are deeply felt and believed in by my subjects. Other topics, such as tuition and the possibility of a working class students club, were discussed as well. These were mostly brought up at the end of the interviews, unless previously mentioned. For the most part, the interviews followed closely the guide listed above.




Appendix C

Interview Schedule

  1. Dave, February 15, 1999, 2:00 p.m.
  2. Amy, February 16, 1999, 1:30 p.m.
  3. Heather, February 19, 1999, 3:30 p.m.
  4. Erin, February 24, 1999, 3:00 p.m.
  5. Jodi, February 25, 1999, 12:00 p.m.
  6. Jeanine, March 11, 1999, 5:30 p.m.
  7. Jean, March 11, 1999, 9:00 p.m.
  8. Tom, March 17, 1999, 1:00 p.m.
  9. Chris, March 17, 1999, 2:30 p.m.
  10. Kelly, March 31, 1999, 11:00 a.m.
  11. Dave B., April 7, 1999, 1:00 p.m.
  12. Mike, April 8, 1999, 12:00 p.m.
  13. Erik, April 9, 1999, 10:00 a.m.









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