Is There a Class Basis of Academic Success at Denison

By Paul A. Djupe

College is supposed to be the great equalizer. We (prof-types) assign grades based on merit, grant equal access to help, and focus considerable resources to ensure understanding of new material. But there are a number of ragged edges. So, when I ran across a tweet from Sociologist @JessicaCalarco with results from her book Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School, I knew I needed to ask these questions of Denison students.

The great Albus Dumbledore lays out the fundamental issue in The Deathly Hallows. At one point he reassures Harry: “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” This seems simple enough, but Dumbledore later tweaks this to the loaded phrase, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who deserve it” (emphasis added). Harry has the advantage of knowing that he’s special, with the weight of the world on his shoulders. If anyone does, Potter deserves help. Most of us fall far short of Harry’s branded position, though we’ve all met students on a pedestal of someone’s design (their own? their parents? coach?). Should we ask for help? Do we deserve it?

Calarco’s argument is that social class strongly determines whether students know that they can ask for help, that they can ask for different kinds of special help, and that they deserve to have that help. Essentially, the socialization in middle+ class homes drives inequality not because the standards shift, but because they are taught to ask for and expect to receive help.

Is that true at Denison? In our March 2020 survey (500 respondents), we asked three questions shown in the figure below designed to capture a range of the social supports that facilitate achievement. Two-thirds of Denison students would ask for extra help on a test. Only a third are bold enough to straight up ask their professor to change a grade from a (unfairly dreaded) B+ to an A-, while slightly more (~38%) indicate that a parent could drop off forgotten homework to avoid late penalties in high school. I’m surprised the latter figure is not higher. Anyway, what matters is whether these “social opportunists” overlap with class and other privileged categories.

We captured social status in two ways – one focused on income and one on education. These are pretty interesting in and of themselves, so it’s worth taking a look at how maldistributed these attributes are at Denison. Most of the US calls themselves “middle class”, but not here – a majority label their families as upper-middle or upper class. Only 17 percent are lower/lower-middle class. Almost unanimously, Denison parents have at least college degrees and most have pursued graduate work beyond a BA. While some would say this is how “the system” reproduces itself, it also suggests who is able and willing to invest in an excellent liberal arts education.

Do social opportunists tend to cluster in the upper classes? A little bit. What is most remarkable about the results is that the differences across class groups are small and do not quite match up with Calarco’s most straight-forward presentation. There are significant differences between middle and upper-middle class students – the latter are more likely to grade grub, ask for test help, and report having a parental chauffeur for their homework. Students from upper-middle class families are about 13 percent more likely to ask for test help, 16 percent more likely to grade grub, and about 10 percent more likely to report homework chauffeuring. Those with a lower class identity are no different from the middle class and in most cases are not different from upper-class students.

It is interesting to note that women are not more or less likely to do these things and neither are white students (though they are a bit more likely, the 5-6% increase is not statistically distinguishable). Parental education levels didn’t generate any differences at all, so there’s nothing really to show.

Does being a social opportunist matter? I looked to see if social opportunists (I added up the first two questions, leaving off homework chauffering) had higher GPAs.[1] I tried a variety of things to look for a relationship, but it just doesn’t seem to matter across the whole sample. However, it does appear to help boost the GPAs of non-white students. From the least social opportunizing to the most, the GPAs of non-white students increase by half a GPA point (which is a lot). Being a social opportunist seems to have no effect whatsoever on the GPAs of white students.

I think most of my species (profs) try to sort out these norms at the start of class – we tend to welcome questions and visits to office hours, and try to ensure that access to resources is equalized as much as possible. In addition, colleges like Denison have special programs in place to erase or ease socialization gaps for first generation college students and others. So, from these perspectives, it’s not surprising that the gaps seen here are not larger as Calarco found in much broader samples. Fortunately, these results gibe with previous looks at this problem, too. But let the larger meaning sink in – equality isn’t free. Equality is built on solid institutional foundations that work hard to fill in gaps civil society leaves wide open.

Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist who coincidentally has taught social science research methods and political science at Denison for millenia. He started a few years ago in a bid to subsidize collective action. He’s on Twitter and you should be too, along with your president.


1. This isn’t the ideal test, of course. What we really need is to look assignment-by-assignment or course-by-course to see if being a social opportunist matters when it’s used.

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