Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor

Laurel Wainwright

Second Advisor

Tracey Rogers

Third Advisor

Nickki Dawes


For many, earning a college degree provides an opportunity to improve social status by allowing access to career opportunities and financial security (Elman & O’Rand, 2004). For individuals from low-income or working-class backgrounds, admission to college is marred by challenges, including financial constraints (Holland, 2010), lack of resources (Holland, 2010), and a lack of college knowledge and assistance (Abelev, 2009).

Even after admission to college, challenges for these students can persist. Notably, many students from low-income and working class backgrounds never graduate (Tinto 2006-2007), which can perpetuate social inequalities. Exploring experiences of these students, Bourdieu (1973) developed the concept of habitus, which serves as the orienting framework that individuals rely upon to navigate their social world. The values of social class backgrounds may differ because of varying experiences and expectations. Students from low-income or working-class backgrounds lack the habitus necessary to successfully navigate the complex world of higher education (Bourdieu, 2004). Many experience a mismatch between their habitus and the habitus of the middle-class community of higher education, and may fail to utilize resources that are often vital to academic success (Collier & Morgan, 2007).

Using a mixed-method approach, this project investigated the impact of habitus on the experience of low-income, working-class, and middle-class students in a university that specifically serves the low-income and working-class community. This project revealed that students from low income and working class backgrounds who seek higher education usually do so by their own hard work and ability. However, the self-reliance that generally propels these students into a college setting may be the characteristic that negatively impacts academic performance. Students from low-income and working-class backgrounds in this sample reported lower GPAs and yet were also less likely to use on-campus tutoring services, unless required to do so through membership in a specific program. Unexpectedly, there were no reported differences between social class backgrounds with regard to comfort and fit, campus involvement, or losses in connections to home communities. By examining the challenges experienced by low-income and working-class students at higher education institutions, this research hopes to provide more information about the experiences of these students.


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