How does social class impact educational success? Wolfgang Lehmann – Department of Sociology


My name is Wolfgang Lehmann. I am a
Professor in the Department of Sociology at Western University. I’m a qualitative
researcher and I study broadly the role of social class in education, mostly higher
education, and how people make a transition from education to employment.
Most of my research has focused on working class students which I would
define as students who are the first in their family to go to university and come
from lower income backgrounds. Usually in Canada we often think that
class is no longer a relevant issue to understand Canadian society but my
research and that of others would suggest that that is not the case. So
what I have found is that being working-class really does make a
difference to the experience with these young people. In some obvious ways so
they were stressed about money and financial issues when they came to
university but also in less obvious ways so they talked about feeling a bit like
cultural outsiders coming to university, the struggles of not having role models
in their own family who have gone to university and can tell them how things
work, the struggles around finding employment in not having that kind of
networks that sometimes you need to get into jobs. These young people also draw
unique strengths and advantages from being working-class. One of the most
pronounced effect is that when I first interviewed them coming to university I
asked him what they wanted to do and most talked about wanting to be doctors
and lawyers, some teachers. Five years after graduating only one of my
participants ended up going to medical school, nobody went to law school. It has
implications for the diversity of these professions when people, highly qualified
and successful people, like those in my study don’t end up in those programs and
in those careers. By the time working class students are at University a lot has
already happened and what we do find is that families and young people make the
decisions to go to university very early so if we if we understand class as an
important aspect of higher education and if you want to increase the number of
working class students at University interventions need to happen much much
much earlier.

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