Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools

Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools

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Stories abound about the lengths to which middle- and upper-middle-class parents will go to ensure a spot for their child at a prestigious university. From the Suzuki method to calculus-based physics, from AP tests all the way back to early-learning Kumon courses, students are increasingly pushed to excel with that Harvard or Yale acceptance letter held tantalizingly in front of them. And nowhere is this drive more apparent than in our elite secondary schools. In Class Warfare, Lois Weis, Kristin Cipollone, and Heather Jenkins go inside the ivy-yearning halls of three such schools to offer a day-to-day, week-by-week look at this remarkable drive toward college admissions and one of its most salient purposes: to determine class.
Drawing on deep and sustained contact with students, parents, teachers, and administrators at three iconic secondary schools in the United States, the authors unveil a formidable process of class positioning at the heart of the college admissions process. They detail the ways students and parents exploit every opportunity and employ every bit of cultural, social, and economic capital they can in order to gain admission into a “Most Competitive” or “Highly Competitive Plus” university. Moreover, they show how admissions into these schools—with their attendant rankings—are used to lock in or improve class standing for the next generation. It’s a story of class warfare within a given class, the substrata of which—whether economically, racially, or socially determined—are fiercely negotiated through the college admissions process.
In a historic moment marked by deep economic uncertainty, anxieties over socioeconomic standing are at their highest. Class, as this book shows, must be won, and the collateral damage of this aggressive pursuit may just be education itself, flattened into a mere victory banner.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226135083
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/02/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Lois Weis is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. She is the author of many books and most recently the editor of The Way Class Works. Kristin Cipollone is a lecturer at Buffalo State College, SUNY, and a postdoctoral associate in the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Heather Jenkins is director of academic programs and High School Prep at Buffalo Prep. 

Read an Excerpt

Class Warfare

Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools



Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13489-5


Class, Race, and College Admissions in a Changing US Context

From their former status as peripheral institutions, the colleges and universities [took] on great social importance as the training ground for entrance into the upper middle and upper classes. — (Wechsler 1977, as cited in Stevens 2007, p. 246)

The system that elite colleges and universities developed to evaluate the best and the brightest is now the template for what counts as ideal child rearing in America.... Each year's entering class is the product of an elaborate organizational machinery whose upper tiers have been quite consciously designed to send elite colleges just what they are looking for. — (Stevens 2007, p. 247)

You know, there was an article in Time magazine, maybe like a year ago when we were starting this (the college admissions process), and talking about the things that kids do to up the ante to get into college, and I remember reading it and going "Oh my gosh, we're bad parents, we haven't done any of that." — (Sandy Jacinovic, Parent, Cannondale High School, 2010)

Stories about the lengths to which parents of middle- and upper-middleclass children are willing to go in light of the increasingly competitive college admissions process flourish in the popular press. For example, one New York Times article highlights the rising trend among parents to enroll children, as young as two, in Kumon classes to give them a leg up in competitive kindergarten admissions (Zernike 2011), presumably with an eye toward admission to highly selective colleges and universities. In the documentary film Race to Nowhere (2009), a young child reflects on the dizzying array of homework and scheduled activities that undergird his life. Lamenting the loss of free time, he notes that everything is now about "preparing for college."

While more students than ever attend college, admissions, particularly at the most selective colleges and universities, has become increasingly competitive, wherein the most highly valued postsecondary destinations in the United States report markedly increased numbers of applications and commensurate lower acceptance rates. Ranking schemata, such as the US News & World Report College Rankings, further fan the flames of competition, serving to exacerbate anxiety among privileged students and families. The fear, it seems, is that failure to gain entry into a "good" college limits long-term economic and social opportunity, a fear that is, by and large, substantiated in the scholarly literature.

Recent studies by Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson (2009) and Stephan, Rosenbaum, and Person (2009) suggest that where one goes to school matters, particularly in regard to persistence and graduation rates. This finding was earlier noted by Astin and Oseguera (2002), who suggest that more selective colleges and universities tend to have higher graduation outcomes. So too, as Carnevale (2012) argues, more selective institutions offer better access to jobs and more prestigious graduate and professional programs. In this markedly more competitive context for college and university admissions, parents' "fear of falling" (Ehrenreich 1990) is not completely unfounded.

As Mitchell Stevens suggests, "The system that elite colleges and universities developed to evaluate the best and the brightest is now the template for what counts as ideal child rearing in America" (2007, p. 247). He further argues:

For the affluent upper middle class, the transition from high school to college is a seamless web of interdependencies: between guidance counselors and admissions officers; between youthful athletic talent and athletic league standings; between high property taxes, large tuition checks, and excellent academics; between aesthetic expectations and architecturally spectacular schools.... Colleges rely on affluent families to produce and deliver most of their raw materials, while families in turn rely on colleges to certify those our society calls its most accomplished. The interdependence of privileged families and elite colleges is precisely why the ceremony of selective admissions is so important. It defines college entrance as an almost sacred moment of evaluation, in which supposedly universal standards of merit are applied to each and every applicant regardless of social station. For the most privileged kids in each year's applicant pool, the real question is not if they will be admitted to an elite college, but which ones will offer them spots. Even so, the frenzy of the admissions process serves to bless favored candidates with marks of honor that, however deceptively, seem neutral to class. (pp. 247–48)

Peering underneath such a "sacred moment," Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions in Top-Tier Secondary Schools conceptually and methodologically inverts Stevens's path-breaking study, offering a worm's eye view of the day-to-day and week-by-week struggles over class positioning as engaged by differentially located class and race actors in public and private privileged secondary schools in early twenty-first-century United States. As we will argue, rather than a "seamless web of interdependencies," the college admissions process, approached from this point of view, represents the culmination of specifically located and intentionally waged parent and student "class work" that is now linked to an envisioned battleground over forms of privilege represented by admission to particular kinds of postsecondary destinations. Such "class work" is differentially engaged by sector of secondary school, student position in the opportunity structure of the school, and degree of parent /student closeness to the habitus embedded within particularly located privileged institutions. While postsecondary destinations seemingly "bless favored candidates of honor" via admission to specific colleges and universities, thereby certifying those "our society calls its most accomplished," we reveal new and complex forms of "class warfare" that lurk just beneath the surface of this "sacred" moment of college admissions.

Taking the perspectives and practices of secondary schools, parents, and students as its central starting point, Class Warfare details the extent to which and the ways in which parents, school counselors, teachers, and students at three iconic, privileged, secondary schools in the United States work to "lock in" the next generation's privileged class status via the postsecondary applications and admissions process. In a historic moment marked by deep economic uncertainly and accompanying class anxieties, we argue that a particularly located segment of largely, but not entirely, White and affluent parents and students in relatively privileged secondary schools individually and collectively mobilize all available and embodied cultural, social, and economic capital to carve out and instantiate what we refer to as a "new" upper middle class via entrance to particular postsecondary destinations. Specifically, they seek access to a broadened pallet (beyond the Ivies) of almost entirely private institutions that are deemed "Most Competitive" and "Highly Competitive+" in the now ubiquitous postsecondary ranking systems. Underneath the ostensibly "seamless web" of college admissions to highly selective institutions, students and parents at this particular strata of secondary schools now consciously exploit any and all opportunities to position their children for advantage, thereby effectively constricting access to highly and most selective colleges and universities for the rest of the middle class and, by obvious and clear extension, the working class and poor.

Following in the footsteps of Angela Valuenzela (1999), Wendy Luttrell (1997), Douglas Foley (2010a, 2010b), Stacey Lee (2005), Lois Weis (1990, 2004), Michelle Fine (1991), Paul Willis (1977), and others who track and theorize class processes through intense multifaceted ethnographic investigation, we theoretically and empirically drill down into the production of a distinctly located upper middle class—one that is increasingly working, we argue, to differentiate itself from the broader middle class within which it is embedded. Employing what Weis and Fine (2012) call "critical bifocality"—a bifocal design that documents at once the linkages and capillaries of structural arrangements and the discursive and lived-out practices by which individuals make sense of their circumstances (Weis and Fine 2012, 201 )—Class Warfare connects the story of students, parents, and school personnel to broad social and economic arrangements through specific focus on the secondary to postsecondary "linking process" (Perna et al. 2008; Hill 2008). In so doing, we engage a triplet of theoretical and analytic moves—(1) deep ethnographic work within schools and families in three purposively selected secondary school sites, (2) serious relational analyses between and among relevant race/ethnic and class groups in markedly altered global context, and (3) broad structural connections to social and economic arrangements.

Although seemingly straightforward, the postsecondary application process in the United States has become a dizzying array of complex tasks and activities, with the short- and long-term stakes rendered ever higher by the larger national and global context within which this range of now "normalized" actions and activities are voraciously engaged by students, parents, counselors, and teachers in privileged secondary schools.

Class Warfare takes up this theoretically located "class" project via multiyear ethnographic research with three distinct groups of students in three upper-middle-class secondary schools—defined here as schools serving a largely professional and managerial parental population (Apple 2010; Kivel 2004)—as follows: (1) a representative sample of largely, but not entirely, White students who fall, by virtue of class rank, in the top 10% of their secondary school graduating class in a highly affluent suburban public high school; (2) a representative sample of largely, but not entirely, highly affluent White students and the children of "flexible immigrants" of color who fall, by virtue of class rank, in the top 20% of their graduating class at an NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) private coeducational day school; and (3) a representative sample of low-income self-identified Black students in two NAIS day schools (one coeducational, one single-sex female) who attended poorly resourced, inner-city public elementary and middle schools and are almost entirely placed at the bottom of the opportunity structure of their respective secondary schools.

Data are drawn from the above three ethnographic studies of relatively elite coeducational secondary schools (elite is defined as high ranking with regard to the educational sector of the nation) located in tier-2, "non-global" cities (e.g., Charlotte) in the northeastern United States. Unlike schools in tier-1 cities (e.g., New York City), wherein schools draw from a far wealthier clientele, tier-2 cities are marked by notably less concentration of capital and wealth. Data were collected over one and one-half years during the 2009–10 academic school year, and each researcher was embedded within her respective site for this entire year with some limited engagement before and/or after this year. At the public high school, 7 participants were interviewed and participated in three focus group sessions. Study participants include students (9 purposively selected students in the top 10% of the class), parents (11), school counselors (8), counseling support staff (2), eleventh- and twelfth-grade core subject teachers (5), and administrators (2). All participants were interviewed between one and three times. Additionally, 200 hours were spent in the field observing classes, counselor sessions, college-related presentations, course advisement, parent information meetings, SAT test administration, and many other less-formal occurrences (e.g., spending time in the College Center while students researched schools). Relevant school documents were also collected and analyzed.

Data collection at the private schools was conducted similarly, although two distinct samples were drawn. One sample targeted students in the top 20% of their graduating class, while the other sought out low-income Black students (as defined earlier in note 12) and drew participants from two schools. At the coeducational Matthews Academy, one sample consisted of 8 individuals, including students (1 purposively selected students in the top 20% of the class), Head of the Upper School, Head of College Counseling (one of two counselors in the school), parents (18), and teachers of core junior and senior year subjects (5). All participants were interviewed between one and three times. Additionally, a total of 100 hours were spent in the field observing classes, college-related presentations, parent information meetings, and other less formal interactions (e.g., time spent in the senior lounge as students engaged the college process). As with the public school, relevant school documents were collected and analyzed.

The second sample drew students both from Matthews Academy and Bradford Academy. This sample consisted of students (9 purposively selected students; 5 from Matthews, 4 from Bradford), parents (4), and college counselors (2). Approximately 100 hours of fieldwork were engaged across the two schools in addition to between one and three interviews per participant, with several informal follow-up interviews. Although all parents of this population of students, like parents of the other two student samples, were approached with respect to granting an interview, few availed themselves of this opportunity, a point that will be more fully addressed in the epilogue. As is the case in the other two ethnographic investigations, numerous hours were spent in the field observing classes, college-related presentations, and so forth. In addition, relevant school documents were collected and analyzed.

This purposively selected tri-school student sample enables deep ethnographic focus on actions and activities engaged by differentially located parents, students, counselors, teachers, and other school personnel across class and race/ethnicity in both iconic private and public privileged secondary institutions. While each group independently reveals a great deal about schooling, family practices, and the college process, putting these groups in sharp relief, as we do here, starkly portrays the ways in which "class works" and is put to work by varying groups in schools.

We argue that our tri-school research largely reveals the targeted "class work" of a now highly insecure broad-based middle class that engages in a very specific form of "class warfare," one in which a segment of the middle class individually and collectively mobilizes and enacts its own located and embodied cultural, social, and economic capital in order to preserve itself in uncertain economic times while simultaneously attempting to instantiate a distinctly professional and managerial upper middle class through access to particular kinds of postsecondary destinations. We further argue that although school sector (in this case, privileged private versus privileged public) sets up and facilitates experiences and outcomes with regard to college admissions, both student engagement with the dominant habitus of the school and student location in the structure of opportunities facilitate and/or constrain the college admissions process and subsequent postsecondary entrance patterns. All three phenomena—sector of institution, family/student closeness to the habitus of the institution, and student position in the opportunity structure of the school—work to "produce" varying college admissions outcomes and linked individual and collective position in the US class structure of the twenty-first century. The particular role of race/ethnicity and class in such productions will be explicitly taken up in this volume.

Class Warfare extends the scholarly work on education and the production of social class (Cookson and Persell 1985; Demerath 2009; Fine 1991; Foley 2010a, 2010b; Gaztambide-Fernández 2009; Howard 2007; Khan 2011; Lareau 1987, 200 ; Nolan and Anyon 2004; Reay et al. 2011; Varenne and McDermott 1998; Weis 1990, 2004; Willis 1977; among others) centering on the anticipated demise of the middle class in the United States. Affirming the notion that class position must now be "won" at both the individual and collective levels, rather than constituting simply the "manner to which one is born" (with the exception perhaps, of the upper class, which can be understood as constituting the top 1% of the population), we track and theorize the intensified preparation for and application to particular kinds of postsecondary destinations now taking place in affluent and elite secondary schools in the United States. Although, as noted earlier, the media have taken note of such "application frenzy" around postsecondary destinations, little scholarly work tracks and theorizes this frenzy as a distinctly located class process, one that represents intensified "class work" at one and the same time as class "winners" and "losers" become ever more apparent. In line with Weis and Fine's (2012, 2013) framework of critical bifocality, this must be understood as linked to massively altered national and global circumstances, a topic to which we now turn.


Excerpted from Class Warfare by LOIS WEIS, KRISTIN CIPOLLONE, HEATHER JENKINS. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Class, Race, and College Admissions in a Changing US Context
2. Schooling in Privileged Spaces
3. Class Practices and the College Process in a Suburban, Public High School: Creating Distinction around the Highly Selective College-Going Self
4. Micromanaging the College Admissions Process: Leaving Nothing to Chance at Matthews Academy
5. “Outsiders Within”: Relative Opportunities for Low-Income Black Students in Elite Private Secondary Schools
6. Race and Class Matters
7. Class, Race, and Postsecondary Destinations in New Global Circumstances
Epilogue: Details and Reflections on Theory and Methods


What People are Saying About This

Diane Reay

Class Warfare is a richly theorized, powerfully written book. It works well across a range of macro- and microlevels, keeping wider social structures in constant play alongside the lived experiences of the young people and their families at these top-tier institutions. It ably demonstrates the usefulness of the sociological imagination in explaining complicated social phenomena, highlighting central issues in middle-class identity in a nuanced and sophisticated manner. Weis and her colleagues reinvigorate debates around class and its grounded workings in contemporary practices. They chart the complexity and nature of class work in the United States today, presenting powerful evidence of how upper-middle-class privilege is being consolidated across racial and ethnic difference.”

Stacey J. Lee

Class Warfare makes an important, timely, and original contribution to our understanding of the role of education in the production of class during an era of neoliberal globalization that threatens the security of the middle class. Through rich ethnographic data, Weis and her colleagues demonstrate the intense efforts that go into packaging students for college admissions and how it reflects a neoliberal subjectivity that is encouraged by neoliberal discourses, practices, and policies that characterize the current political economy.”

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