The US higher education system is massive but pyramidal. Almost anyone can go to college, but only a few can attend the nation’s best institutions. And just like in other countries with highly stratified systems, students at the top come from the most privileged families, by race and class. The problem isn’t only the lack of diversity in this exclusive segment of higher education; it’s also that simply raising the proportion of students from less advantaged backgrounds is not enough to create an integrated, thriving, diverse student community. As earlier studies have documented, succeeding or even surviving at an elite, predominantly white institution is not always a simple endeavour for non-white and low-income students.
In Speaking of Race and Class, Elizabeth Aries and Richard Berman take up this critical issue by exploring how race and class shape students’ experiences and learning at an elite institution. The study involves surveys and interviews with 58 students in their final semester at Amherst College, a small, private, highly selective liberal arts college, looking back on their four years of study.
Notwithstanding the small sample, one of the study’s strengths lies in its research design. The authors sampled members of four groups: affluent blacks, affluent whites, lower-income blacks and lower-income whites. This affords the opportunity to compare experiences across groups. For example, the authors trace the variation in whether students experienced positive cross-group interactions and learned from each other’s differences, and find that across all groups, high-income white students were the least likely to report learning about race, getting to know classmates of another race, or growing more comfortable interacting with black students (although some of this may be attributable to greater cross-race experience prior to college).
The book can also be recommended for its breadth of coverage of students’ experiences and the consideration of the salience of race and class across a wide range of situations. We hear how students manage invitations from more affluent students to dine out or join them in travel that they cannot afford, their views and experiences with cross-class and cross-race friendships and dating, how they come to understand race and class privilege, how they maintain often complex connections to their families and home communities, and how they handle race- and class-based insults and prejudices. Through this, we see how and why students come to feel comfortable and included on campus (or not) and how they change during their time there.
Despite these strengths, the book makes for a frustrating read. Chapters rely heavily on direct quotations from student interviewees. To present their findings, the authors introduce a topic and then provide either two or three longer quotes or simply a list of shorter quotes. While it can be interesting to hear the students’ own voices, more often than not the numerous and lengthy quotations detract from the flow of the book. Reading five different examples of how students describe a particular experience does not always add to our understanding; it frequently feels like slogging through interview transcripts rather than reading a book.
While the book is thick with students’ voices, it is thin on analysis. The authors do not engage with a theoretical framework for understanding race and class and give scant attention to existing research on the topics they investigate. Generally, relevant studies are noted only in the short discussion sections in each chapter, where the authors mention cursory parallels or differences without attempting to explain them. They also refrain from providing much of their own analysis and I often wished they would develop explanations for their intriguing findings.
However, I suspect these are not the authors’ intentions; instead, they aim primarily to document the challenges of class and race at an elite college, for both the privileged and the less privileged. In this, they have admirably succeeded. Yet I think an opportunity has been missed to not just build our awareness but to more fully deepen our understanding of these important issues.