Explaining Social Class Differences in Social Integration at University

In a recent meta-analytic review, I found that working-class students are less integrated at university than their middle-class peers. I offered nine potential explanations for this working-class exclusion effect. My subsequent research with Chrysalis Wright has found support for two of these explanations. The first is to do with age.

(1) Age Differences

Working-class students tend to be older than middle-class students. Why? Most likely because they don’t tend to go to university immediately after school but instead get out into the real world and earn a bit of money before accumulating the financial security to upskill in higher education (James, 2000). So, there tends to be a negative correlation between social class and age at university. Younger students tend to be middle-class school leavers, and older students tend to be more mature-aged, worldly-wise students.

In some research with Australian students, we found that age differences help to explain social class differences in students’ friendships. We surveyed 376 first-year undergraduate psychology students, asking them how many friends they had at uni and how much their friends mattered to their identity. We found that working-class students had fewer identity-relevant friends and regarded the friends that they did have as being less relevant to their identity. Moreover, we found that age differences explained this social class effect: Working-class students had fewer friends because they were older than middle-class students.

(2) Time and Money

In our research on age differences, we assumed that older students tend to have less time than younger students to integrated into their university's social life because they have more work and childcare commitments. However, we never tested this assumption directly. In our subsequent research, we tested this assumption by surveying 433 students at an Australian university and 416 students at a USA university.

We found that working-class students tended to be older than middle-class students, older students tended to have more paid work and childcare commitments than younger students, students with more of these commitments tended to spend less time on campus, and students who spent less time on campus tended to be less socially integrated at university.

We also found that working-class students tended to be less satisfied with their finances, and that this social class difference in financial satisfaction helped to explain their lack of social integration. Hence, working-class students tended to be social excluded at university because they were both financially poor and time poor. The diagram below summaries our model.

A Model of Social Lass Differences in Social Integration at University

So What?

Well, as I’ve argued elsewhere, a potentially important method of improving working-class students’ academic outcomes is to improve the quality and quantity of their university friendships and social integration. University friends can help to explain coursework assignments, remind one another about due dates, act as study buddies, provide a shoulder to cry on during stressful periods, and instil a sense of belonging and institutional identification that increases degree commitment and persistence. Research has shown that working-class students are most in need of this type of support.

Our research indicates that attempts at improving working-class students’ friendships and integration need to take into account (a) their more mature age and (b) their limited time and money. So, night-time discos and parties might be fun for the 20-somethings, but it’s not a realistic approach to social integration for the more mature-aged, child-caring, working-class students. Likewise, on-campus accommodation is an excellent method of improving social integration at university, but this tried-and-tested approach needs to be adapted to take into account students’ social class, age, and family commitments.

Put Your Hands Up...Unless You're Older than 22 and Don't Have the Time or Money to Party!

Last thing before I go! Our initial research on age differences found that working-class students had not only fewer friends than middle-class students but also less desire and concern about making new friends. Hence, simply providing opportunities for friendship-building is unlikely to be sufficient. Universities also need to motivate older working-class students to participate in social life at university, perhaps through the use of information campaigns that highlight the informational and emotional support that is provided by university friends.


For more information about our research, please see the following journal articles:

Rubin, M., & Wright, C. (2015). Age differences explain social class differences in students’ friendship at university: Implications for transition and retention. Higher Education, 70, 427-439. doi: 10.1007/s10734-014-9844-8 Please click here for a self-archived version.

Rubin, M.,& Wright, C. L. (2017). Time and money explain social class differences in students’ social integration at university. Studies in Higher Education, 42, 315-330 doi: 10.1080/03075079.2015.1045481 Please click here for a self-archived version.