Pascale Dietrich-Ragon

INED researcher Pascale Dietrich-Ragon tells us about the situation of students of working-class background in France after they move out of the family home.

(Interview conducted in August 2022)

What are some of the reasons students of working-class background look for their own place to live when pursuing higher education?

I worked on a particular fringe segment of working-class students, from the Paris suburbs, many of immigrant descent, who wanted to obtain housing in Paris. The argument most often cited to justify moving out of the family home is to reduce the considerable time spent traveling to their place of study—a situation that heavily impacts their education and social life. Because their families live far away, these young people feel marginal in that the life that’s supposed to go with being a student is inaccessible to them. Moreover, students whose families live in ill-reputed neighborhoods want to get away from them to improve their chances of overall success in society. As they see it, you have to be able to live in a valued place—in this case the French capital—if you want to increase your chances of success. They gradually come to think that living near where they study is a key to succeeding in higher education and becoming integrated into the student world. 

What obstacles do they encounter in their housing searches?

Given the highly selective housing market in Paris, the students very often run up against various obstacles. On the one hand, the private-sector rental market is virtually closed to them due to their parents’ meager economic resources and, in some cases, not having a guarantor to sign the lease. What’s more, they tend to self-exclude from this sector, feeling that they do not belong. Instead they train their sights on the social housing rental market. But here the long waits and the institutional “accompaniment” have the effect of putting them “back in their place”; that is, making them feel their dominated position in social space. Obtaining a place to live in Paris is thought of as a real obstacle course. 

If and when they do find a place to live, what difficulties do they encounter?

Some have had to accept unsatisfactory solutions and they suffer from poor housing conditions. But the most common difficulty involves paying the rent. This triggers a chain of repercussions on student life. All respondents reported being harried by and worried about financial problems. The need to pay rent often forces them to spend an increasing amount of time working “small jobs.” And the payment difficulties often reactivate the strains that moving out of the family home was supposed to resolve. They have to spend increasing amounts of time doing paid work, ask family members who are themselves in hard financial straits to help them out, and, in extreme cases, turn to the social services. It’s vicious circle with housing at the center and it ends up ejecting these young people from higher education and pushing them into the labor market too early. In the end, the housing problems they run into when moving out to pursue higher education reinforce the feelings of social insecurity already strong among young people of working-class background and exacerbate their consciousness of being in a dominated social position.