So I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of student engagement lately, only partially because my campus recently interviewed several candidates for a position on student success and engagement, with particular attention to the changing student body, transfer students, and retention.

Every time I think about any of these issues, the underlying role that social class keeps rearing its ugly head; and it also seems to be exactly what we don’t want to talk about. The degree to which retention is a structural issue, and largely an economic structural issue, tends to get ignored by administrators, and indeed by most faculty.

As my university dips down further into our waiting list, as it accepts more and more transfer students each year so that it can make its yield and raise the tuition it needs, we will hear more and more about how our acceptance rate is higher. How the students SAT scores and GPAs are lower than they were last year. How the students are less well prepared for college. How much more difficult are our jobs are when students can’t read or write or study the way we expect them to.

I do not really know how much less ready they are, and how it will affect my teaching of them. What I am certain about is that these students, in general, will be poorer. They will be more likely to be first generation college students, and they will be less and less familiar with college life. They will also be less likely to ask for the services that they need, or even be aware that they exist, and that there are places they can go for counseling, for study skills, making the job of student engagement and student success that much more difficult. They will be more scared, and rightly so, about finding any jobs at all and being able to meet the standard of living their parents provided. They will experience a fear about finding work and being successful that most academics in their 40s-60s have never had to face.

For someone who favors economic equality, there are some advantages in offering a liberal arts education to those who were not able to take advantage of it before, but ONLY if we offer them the additional help that they need to succeed, and ONLY if that help is self-conscious about the role that social class, through parental education and income, plays.

Most professors have a difficult time dealing with social class – race, gender, religion, sexuality, sure, more and more (certainly not all) are comfortable thinking about how these issues shape their students’ lives inside and outside the what happens in the classroom. But parental income? Untouchable. Campus groups, also. No working class students association. No events scheduled around what it’s like to be disadvantaged by social class. Of course, the students themselves would rather blend in, fit in, since college is going to take them (supposedly) into the middle class.

Next up: using data to think about class