A bunch of friends were talking about this episode of The American Life the other day, which I finally got the chance to finish listening to over lunch today. (There's also a written transcript if you prefer to read.)
Its jumping off point is two teachers in New York, one at an exclusive private school, one at a poor public school in the Bronx (just three miles away) who decide to to an exchange program where the kids in the two schools visit back and forth. Then it tracks how the kids reactions to being exposed to this much richer school affected their own attempts to get into college and get out of the poor neighborhood.
There are a lot of programs and people trying to help these people get out, and yet one of the things which stops a lot of them is their own deep belief that they don't belong in elite college and jobs, and they don't deserve to do better. A lot of the kids who make it into elite colleges with lots of financial help nonetheless fail out, partly, it sounds, due to lack of academic preparation (being an A+ student at their school translates to being a C and D student at college) but also to a great extent because they feel a paralyzing sense of not belonging and not deserving which causes them to do things that seem on the face of it both stupid and their fault.
For instance, one guy gets a full ride to Wheaton College. When he arrives, he can't afford his text books. But rather than telling anyone in the program that sent him there, he just doesn't do the reading. Then he feels bad about being behind on the reading when he's often the only black kid in small discussion classes, so he stops going to class to avoid feeling ashamed. He's eventually expelled from the college.
It adds up to a strong sense of how class barriers involve a lot more than money, and that overcoming them is not simple.
3 hours ago