Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Exploring class privilege in counselor education

By Cynthia Miller, Frankie Fachilla and Jennifer Greene-Rooks February 9, 2021

James is a student in the first year of his master’s program in counseling. Typically very conscientious and enthusiastic, he recently started to leave class early without any explanation. Last week, he missed all of his classes and did not contact anyone to explain his absence.

When his adviser calls him to express concern, James says that his car recently broke down and he does not have the money to pay for repairs. He’s been relying on friends to help him get to and from class. He’s been leaving early because that was the only time someone could give him a ride home. Last week, he couldn’t find anyone to give him a ride. He’s been too embarrassed to ask his classmates or his professors for help.

Stephanie is in the final year of her doctoral program and has been applying for teaching positions. Despite good grades, multiple honors within her program, good teaching reviews from students, and strong recommendations, she is having difficulty getting interviews. Stephanie recently received feedback that her curriculum vitae lacks evidence of significant professional involvement. Reviewers have been concerned that she has not shown evidence of attending or presenting at state, regional and national conferences. Although she is a member of the American Counseling Association, she has not joined any divisions or state chapters.

Stephanie is frustrated and discouraged. She has not been able to afford the registration, travel, lodging and meal expenses associated with conferences, nor could she pay for multiple professional memberships. She feels that her financial position during her doctoral studies is being held against her during her job search.

Celia is a single mother of three living in a multigenerational home with her children and her elderly parents. She has worked as a case manager for several years, and her supervisor has been consistently impressed with her work ethic, empathy, creativity and critical thinking. Her supervisor has been encouraging her to pursue her master’s degree for years.

Celia recently met with the program director of a counseling program at a local university. She was excited to learn about the classes she could take and the career possibilities that would be available to her if she enrolled and completed the degree. However, when Celia learned that she would have to complete an unpaid internship, she became discouraged. As the sole provider for her family, she cannot afford to give up her full-time job to do an unpaid internship, and the counseling program did not have any sites that offered internship hours only in the evenings and on weekends. Celia ultimately decided not to enroll.

Stories such as James’, Stephanie’s and Celia’s are familiar to many counselor educators, but these stories remain rarely discussed despite the counseling profession’s rich history of promoting awareness of, and respect for, issues pertaining to multiculturalism, diversity and social justice. Both the ACA Code of Ethics and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies developed by the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development highlight the need for counselors to be aware of issues of privilege and oppression based on membership in various groups. Counselors are also called to understand how such issues affect the worldviews and concerns of the people they serve, and to work to reduce disparities that are based on privilege. 

As counselor educators and students in counseling training programs, we have observed that conversations about privilege and oppression are common in training but that they generally occur in two ways. First, the conversations typically use a lens that looks outward into societal structures while neglecting to use a lens that looks inward and focuses on how our own educational and professional structures create disparities. Second, such conversations most frequently center on advantages given to a person on the basis of sex, race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or age, while ignoring socioeconomic class. 

The lack of recognition of class privilege is also reflected in our research. Although a large body of research on privilege based on other criteria exists, there is very little research related to privilege based on class. However, our collective experience leads us to believe that class privilege is embedded in our counseling training programs in ways that create real barriers for entry into the counseling profession for all but the most economically privileged. This strikes us as a significant oversight in the conversation on privilege in general and a crucial issue to address if we are to live up to our ideals as a profession.

Understanding class privilege and classism

Class privilege is generally defined as the tangible or intangible unearned advantages enjoyed by someone of higher class status. At an individual level, indicators of class privilege include such things as the ability to own a home, support a household with one job or one salary, afford child care, pay for a vacation, enjoy frequent meals out or amass savings.

Class privilege exists within the larger construct of social class, which categorizes individuals into groups based on similar levels of wealth, power, resources or status. In the United States, discussions of social class are often considered taboo. As such, social class can be difficult to define. It is important to note, however, that social class does not refer merely to economic status — it also refers to other forms of capital available to an individual. In his 1986 essay “The Forms of Capital,” Pierre Bourdieu identified three different types of capital:

  • Economic capital — command of resources such as money, assets or property
  • Social capital — possession of a network of relationships that provide access to power, recognition or economic or cultural capital
  • Cultural capital — possession of education, knowledge or skills that provide an advantage when trying to obtain a higher social status

In the context of higher education, class privilege can present itself not only through differences in the amount and kind of capital available to students, but also through institutional and programmatic policies and expectations that privilege the holders of different types of capital over those who do not possess that capital. When students lack capital in comparison to their peers, or when they encounter institutional and programmatic policies that assume access to capital that they do not possess, they can experience marginalization and oppression. When marginalization or oppression occurs based on social class, it is referred to as classism

In our experience as graduate students and counselor educators, we have observed multiple ways in which class privilege and classism pervade graduate programs in counseling even as they go unacknowledged. We believe that ignoring students’ social class positions in counselor education programs facilitates microaggressions related to social class and perpetuates a system of oppression that must be acknowledged, explored and addressed if we are to truly live up to our ethical ideals.

Class privilege in counselor education systems

In 2019, a small group of counselor educators and counseling students began an informal discussion on the CESNET Listserv (CESNET-L) concerning the ways in which social class was perceived to create additional privileges and barriers for students in counseling programs. Participants in the conversation identified multiple ways in which class privilege is embedded in counseling programs. Their comments reflected experiences with class privilege based primarily on economic capital, although cultural capital and social capital were also mentioned. A review of that discussion follows.

Class privilege based on economic capital

Class privilege within counseling programs takes many forms, and although it may be overlooked by counselor educators, students are very aware of it. With respect to economic capital, participants in the discussion noted that class privilege is present from the very beginning of the training process when prospective students must be able to afford application fees and pay for required entrance exams such as the GRE graduate school entry exam. In addition, discussion participants pointed to the overall cost of counseling programs as a significant barrier and noted that many programs contain hidden fees that are not included in the advertised cost. These fees include such things as student activity fees, mandatory membership in professional organizations with significant dues, technology fees, fees for comprehensive exams such as the National Counselor Examination or the Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination, and graduation fees. Doctoral students, in particular, reported embedded expectations that they would attend conferences without any consideration of their ability to pay for travel, lodging, food and registration fees. 

In addition to the costs cited for applying to and attending counseling programs, there were concerns related to costs of living while enrolled. Participants in the discussion noted that students with dependents must find ways to cover child care or elder care and maintain an income that allows them to continue to pay for food, clothing and other household expenses. Because the majority of counselor training programs offer little in the way of grants or scholarships — particularly at the master’s level — the system appears skewed in a way that privileges those with greater economic capital who can afford the added financial burdens that come with enrollment. 

The unique problem of unpaid internships

The practicum/internship experience also exposes class privilege inherent in counseling programs. Practicum and internship experiences typically take about one year to complete and require students to devote between 10 and 20 hours per week to the experience. While the internship experience is an invaluable part of training, the vast majority of internships are unpaid. Some programs may even have internship policies prohibiting any form of payment.

This system inherently privileges those who can afford to give up full-time jobs to devote themselves to internship. Students who cannot afford that option find themselves trying to complete practicum and internship hours on top of working full time and attending classes. This creates a nearly untenable level of chronic stress and exhaustion that students who are more privileged do not have to bear. 

Class privilege based on cultural capital

Participants in the CESNET-L discussion also identified ways in which access to cultural capital creates advantages or disadvantages in graduate school. Among those identified were the quality of prior educational experiences, family members’ educational experiences and attainment, family expectations and support of educational attainment, and other experiences that supported educational attainment.

As much prior research has indicated, educational achievement is highly dependent on the quality of education beginning at the prekindergarten level and lasting through high school. Every year of educational experience sets the stage for the next and begins to build a set of advantages and disadvantages. Access to high-quality, heavily resourced elementary and high school education provides easier access to a college degree that prepares students adequately for graduate-level work in a counseling program. Gaps at any level leave students struggling to catch up. Students who did not attend high schools or colleges where writing was heavily emphasized, for example, may struggle to succeed in counseling programs that place a premium on strong writing skills.   

Another privilege that helps students access resources in graduate school is having family members or mentors who have enrolled in and completed higher education. Their knowledge can be capitalized on to navigate the educational system of graduate school. There seems to be a relationship between familial expectations and the willingness of students to take on the tough task of graduate school and then to stay enrolled. We are personally aware of students whose family members have not been supportive of their educational endeavors, interpreting the student’s pursuit of higher education as a rejection of the family’s culture. As they try to work on their degree, these students face the unenviable challenge of navigating a graduate culture in which they frequently feel they do not belong, while simultaneously receiving messages that they no longer fit in with their family either.

Class privilege based on social capital

Additionally, the CESNET-L conversation touched on aspects of privilege that are related to social capital or the ability to build social networks that support access within graduate programs and to employment. Generally, social capital is related to extracurricular activities and family occupations that result in networking opportunities. In counselor education programs and employment, social capital is built through program and department social events, conferences that allow and create networking opportunities, and other situations that support access to mentoring. 

The luxury of time is a frequently overlooked form of social capital. Students who do not have outside jobs, caretaking obligations or other responsibilities are able to attend extracurricular events, participate in honor society meetings and attend presentations at agencies in their communities. The same is true for students who have strong support systems that can be called on to help with their other responsibilities and obligations so that they can participate in professional events. Students without the luxury of time to participate in outside events and develop their networks can find themselves at a disadvantage relative to their more privileged peers once they begin searching for jobs.   

Getting to know our students and addressing class privilege

The CESNET-L discussion provided anecdotal evidence for the idea that class privilege is embedded in the structure of counselor education in multiple ways. But how extensive is the problem? In considering that question, we realized that we did not have any good data on who our counseling students really are with respect to class and class struggles. 

In an attempt to answer the question, research teams have formed to gather quantitative and qualitative data about who our counseling students are with respect to their social class and what their experiences have been with class privilege and classism. We hope that data culled from this research will provide the foundation for a more critical and comprehensive examination of our current training system and result in structural changes that make it easier for students from less privileged backgrounds to obtain a counseling degree.

In the meantime, we believe counselor educators can take some steps now to begin addressing class privilege in a more conscious way: 

  • Consider broaching the issue of class privilege with all students. Individual advising should include a discussion of barriers for students related to class. Group conversations during coursework about privilege and oppression can also incorporate class, alongside other forms of privilege due to gender, race or sexual identity. These conversations will help bring class privilege out of the shadows.
  • Implement a more formal process to survey students at different stages in the program to assess their levels of economic, cultural and social capital. These survey results can be incorporated into the program’s evaluation plan. For example, how many students would struggle to complete internship hours during the typical 9-to-5 workday? How many internship sites offer hours outside of that time frame that students can access? Should programs seek relationships with additional alternative sites that offer weekend and evening hours?
  • Develop aggressive fundraising strategies that emphasize the critical role counselors play in addressing the mental health needs of the community. For programs in universities with strong development offices, this may require advocating for greater visibility of the needs of counseling students among the university’s donors. For programs without strong development offices, it could mean advocating for the creation of a development position. Even if more funding for assistantships is not available, strategies can be developed to help students raise funds to attend conferences or other professional development activities. Any degree of financial help will decrease barriers related to economic privilege.
  • Reduce barriers to paid internships. If sites have the ability to pay students for internships, they should be allowed to do so. However, many sites simply lack the funding necessary to pay interns because they cannot bill for services provided by interns. This requires advocacy with managed care organizations at the state and national levels to allow agencies to bill for services provided by students under the supervision of licensed staff.   
  • Create a formal mentorship program in which students who desire mentorship are paired with faculty, graduates or, potentially, more advanced students in the program. Informal mentorship will, by default, favor students with more class privilege (those who have time to attend departmental events or informally attend office hours for faculty). A formal mentorship process decreases these barriers. Formal mentorship programs also create opportunities for the mentors (more advanced students, doctoral students or alumni) to add experience to their résumés.

Final thoughts

Graduate programs in counseling emerged in the mid-20th century, at a time when higher education was less expensive, costs of living were not as high, and families were easier to support on a single wage. Privilege in graduate education on the basis of sex, race, gender identity, age and other characteristics certainly existed at the time these programs were created and still exists today, but much progress has been made in the past few decades in terms of recognizing and actively addressing those barriers. Class privilege, however, has gone largely unaddressed, even as economic disparities widen. 

We acknowledge that the steps outlined above are not representative of an exhaustive list of all possible steps that could be taken to address class privilege in counseling training programs. However, we believe the steps provide a starting point for counselor educators to more fully enact the ethical call to work to reduce disparities by intentionally addressing class privilege in their program structures. We also hope that our ongoing research will lead to a greater understanding of who our counseling students are with respect to their social class positions so that we can create a training system that better meets the needs of students in the 21st century.

 

For additional information about class privilege and our research, visit our website at https://classprivilegeinces.wixsite.com/mysite.

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “Cultivating social class awareness in the counseling profession

 

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Cynthia Miller is a licensed professional counselor and counselor educator with a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has been a practicing counselor for almost 20 years, working with adults in university, community and correctional settings. Contact her at cynthiamillerlpc@gmail.com.

Frankie Fachilla is a licensed professional counselor with 12 years of full-time counseling experience in community mental health and correctional settings. She now provides trainings on evidence-based practices, supervision and coaching to clinicians in community mental health settings. Contact her at frankiefachilla@gmail.com.

Jennifer Greene-Rooks is a counselor educator with a research background in areas such as multicultural counseling competence, counselor preparation and supervision, school counseling, and leadership. Her background is in school counseling, although she now focuses on the preparation of multiculturally competent, social justice-focused counselors. Contact her at jgreene@txstate.edu.

 

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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