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Rich Grad, Poor Grad: A Degree Alone Won’t Make You Equal

Rich Grad, Poor Grad: A Degree Alone Won’t Make You Equal

Imposter Syndrome or Structural Inequalities?

The impact of class inequalities on mental health has been documented for several decades. In higher education settings, this marriage between class inequalities and mental health can manifest as Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be (6). It is a form of intellectual self-doubt that many students are familiar with. Imposter Syndrome is often accompanied by anxiety and depression (6). Some students may become a perfectionist to combat this syndrome or they begin to show low-self-esteem and a lack of confidence, ultimately affecting their self-perception and academic performance. Therefore, it is worth prompting students to consider if their own beliefs of their capabilities are leading them to feel inadequate or if there are structural inequalities at play that lead them to falsely believe they are incapable of occupying historically elite spaces. Exploring this question and the role that society plays in feeding Imposter Syndrome must be discussed to better support students from working-class backgrounds who are disproportionately impacted by the existing class inequalities at elite universities and companies.

Disparities Continue to Persist After Graduation

In some households, obtaining a formal education is deemed as the way to gain access to a better life. “Go to school, work hard, and you’ll succeed,” can be heard echoing from the mouths of parents desiring a better life for their children. In reality, obtaining a degree, even one from an elite university is not enough to overcome class divide barriers. For the purpose of this content, the class divide is the attainment gap between students from working-class backgrounds compared to their more privileged classmates. Those from privileged backgrounds who receive lower marks for their degrees (2:2 or 50 – 59 out of 100) are still more likely to get higher-paying jobs than working-class students who went to the same universities with a higher degree mark (1st or 70+ out of 100) (4&2). As a result, working-class students will then go on to earn, on average, 16% less than their classmates from privileged backgrounds working in the same position (4). The difference between graduates from these two backgrounds lies in where they "start the race." Graduates from privileged backgrounds can often capitalize on their parent's preexisting networks, especially if they too work in elite or professional settings. This serves as a social boost that may not be afforded to students from working-class backgrounds. A families’ financial contribution also allows graduates from privileged backgrounds to resist taking low-paying jobs while searching for an employment opportunity with a more desirable salary (8). Therefore, even if upward mobility is obtained, the class pay gap continues to plague graduates from working-class backgrounds.

Illustration: Guardian Design/Christophe Gowans

Some people begin life with certain advantages giving them a “head start” in the race to wealth.

Competing with What You Were Born With

Many factors explain the existence of the class pay gap. One factor worth mentioning is the discrimination and negative stereotypes that people may assign to working-class individuals. In a recent BBC Series, “How to Break into the Elite,” Aman Abul interviewed a job recruiter, Suzie Fagan, who recruits graduates for elite financial firms in London. She stated that most companies were mainly looking to hire “polished” candidates (4). In using this term, Suzie mentions that she has been having difficulty in finding a job for a graduate with an accent typically associated with a working-class area of England and has deemed this graduate as undesirable because her accent is not suitable to speak to high-end clients. She admits this is sad but a reality. Blanket terms such as "polished" or "well-rounded" can allude to the fact that specific accents, behavior norms, and even fashion choices are unacceptable for an “elite” setting. Therefore, many students and graduates are faced with the question, "to conform or to not conform?" In addition to blanket stereotyping, the tendency for people to seek out others who are similar to themselves, in contexts such as interviews or performance appraisals may also disproportionately impact students from working-class backgrounds that are aiming to access historically upper-class settings (1,2,&5). The superficial pre-conceptions found throughout interview and recruitment processes can be anxiety-provoking, causing some students and graduates to stress about the perceived need to abandon their class-cultural origins just to adapt to an upper-class environment (1).

Closing the Class Pay Gap

It remains unclear who is responsible for teasing apart whether some working-class students are facing Imposter Syndrome or encountering systemic barriers established to block their progression through life. Whether the onus is on the self or the environment, elite universities should focus on providing equal and equitable opportunities for working-class students simultaneously. Providing students from working-class backgrounds with an equal opportunity for admissions is not enough. Equitable opportunities that provide working-class students with tools their more affluent peers may have received due to their access and privilege is essential to level the playing field. Tools in the form of access to information, which has been identified as a contributor to the class pay gap, have played a key role in attempting to minimize the gap. Some universities have been proactive in attempting to close the gap by hosting programs that teach students how to dress for the job they want, public speaking and presenting in a professional setting, and even mentorship from an elite professional (4). Within the United Kingdom organizations such as the 93% Club are also working to close this gap through professional development opportunities and networking while also teaching students from state schools how to tackle Imposter Syndrome (3).

If you’re interested in the work of the 93% Club or supporting their initiative in the United Kingdom, please visit their website:

National 93% Organization: https://www.93percent.club

Cambridge 93% Club: https://www.cambridgesu.co.uk/organisation/15859/

The access gap for students from working-class backgrounds doesn’t end after admissions. Students, graduates, and elite universities alike need to acknowledge this fact to further dismantle systems that continue to oppress and affect the mental health of marginalized populations. If the class pay gap is left unaddressed its consequences may compound over time, causing the gap to potentially widen and become increasingly difficult to close. Additional research and focus on this issue will not only provide a solution on how to close this gap but possibly change how society views and supports students from working-class backgrounds.

More About the Author: Keya A. Elie

Keya A. Elie is a 2nd year Psychology Ph.D. Student from the United States. Her studies focus on parent-child interactions across varying socioeconomic backgrounds and cognitive outcomes for children between the ages one through five.

Note from the author: This blog was written from the perspective of researchers, students, and graduates in the United Kingdom and the United States.


1. Ashley, Louise. (2015) “Non-Educational Barriers to the Elite Professions Evaluation.” Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission


2. Laurison, Daniel and Friedman, Sam (2016) The class pay gap in Britain’s higher professional and managerial occupations. American Sociological Review, 81 (4). pp. 668-695. ISSN 0003- 1224


3. MacDonald, Sophie. (2021) “Is Oxbridge the ‘great social leveller’? We spoke to The 93% Club about imposter syndrome, admissions and Jack Edwards.” The Cambridge Tab


4. Rajan, Amol. (2019) “How to Break into the Elite” The BBC


5. Rivera, Lauren A. (2012) “Hiring as Cultural Matching the Case of Elite Professional Service

Firms.” American Sociological Review 77 (6): 999–1022.


6. Weir, Kirsten. (2013) “Feel like a Fraud?” American Psychology Association.


7. Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate. (2017) “How Inequality Endangers Our Mental Health.” Inequality.org


8. Laurison, Daniel and Friedman, Sam (2019) The class pay gap: why it pays to be privileged. The Guardian


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