Should Working-Class People Go to College?

That sounds like an irreverent question.  It might even sound like I’m denigrating either working-class people or college.  So let me say this from the outset: I think higher education is important and valuable, and I am delighted that so many working-class students are pursuing it.  I also know that my view reflects just one part of the very divided public discourse about education these days.

I want people to go to college to develop their ability to think critically and analyze the world around them. As a humanist, I believe in the social, cultural, political, and personal value of spending time reading and talking about ideas.  Like Martha Nussbaum and Chris Hedges, I find the shift away from what I think of as “real” education – education for critical thinking and citizenship — not just philosophically problematic but downright scary for the future of this country and the world.  We need more people to be more able to read, speak, write, and most important think well.

Discussions about the value of the humanities and the broad social purposes of higher education represent just one part of the public debate.  The rest is about economic costs and benefits.  John Sherriff collates some of this material on his website exploring whether a college education is a “good investment.”  David Evans, a blogger and YouTube video producer, advises people not to go to college, suggesting that other types of training will yield equally-valuable career opportunities.  Others question the structure of higher education, suggesting that the four-year BA is itself a problematic model because few occupations really require that type of education.  Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute even suggests that the idea that everyone should get a BA creates class divides in America.

Two conversations I had last week have me thinking about these two very different discussions.   On Friday, I met with a student I’ll call Cherise, who was thinking about changing her major from English to English Education in order to improve her chances of getting a job, even though she admitted that she didn’t really want to work with children.  While I encouraged her to view college as an opportunity for learning and developing her abilities as a reader, writer, and thinker, I couldn’t ignore Cherise’s concern about getting a good job.  I told her about the panel we recently held with alumni from our department discussing their jobs as writers, editors, and professionals in marketing and public relations.  Studying literature, language, and writing can seem self-indulgent and impractical, but as one of my former students explained during the panel discussion, her English degree prepared her well for her job, teaching her how to adapt her writing to different situations, analyze both content and audiences, and figure out how to communicate effectively about technical issues she never studied in school.

The previous afternoon, I talked with a local group of current and retired teachers, and part of our conversation about class in America turned to the high costs and questionable economic payoffs of higher education.  I noted a point we have cited several times in Working-Class Perspectives over the last two years: the Bureau of Labor Statistics prediction that in the next two decades the U.S. will see more growth in jobs that don’t require a college degree and that pay low wages than in more professional fields.  We also talked about how the message that “everyone” should go to college discourages young people from even thinking about careers in skilled trades.

Worse, I pointed out, the myth that everyone needs a B.A. is creating long-term financial strains for many individuals and their families.  Last week, the New York Times reported that Americans now owe more for student loans than for credit cards, and the total debt load for college loans will soon be more than a trillion dollars.  Two-thirds of students now graduate with debt, and job prospects and security for college grads are both faltering.  According to Paul Krugman, as of December, about 74% of college graduates were finding full-time employment.  That’s a slight increase from the year before, but still 9% lower than a decade ago – when students were graduating with significantly less debt.  A dramatic report on 60 Minutes last fall highlighted the problem, as Scott Pelley talked with a roomful of people in the Silicon Valley who had reached the end of their 99 weeks of government unemployment benefits, unable to find work  despite having B.A.s (or graduate degrees) and years of experience.

College can still be a good investment, but it’s also increasingly expensive.  Costs have escalated as universities add facilities, keep technology up-to-date, and provide more services to address the needs of their increasingly diverse populations.  Meanwhile, despite plenty of rhetoric about the importance of education, most states are cutting funding to colleges and universities in order to balance tight budgets, choosing tax cuts for the well-off over education for the working class. As taxes go down, tuition goes up.  But for many working-class families, the tax cuts that created the states’ budget problems don’t come close to balancing the increased cost of college tuition.  Put simply, going to college takes an ever-bigger bite out of the family budgets of working-class people.  For them, going to college is a significant financial gamble.

That’s what makes the question of whether working-class people should go to college so difficult. Some healthy skepticism about the value of college is wise.  Young people and their parents should pay more attention to alternative forms of job preparation, such as technical schools and apprenticeships.  For someone whose primary goal is getting a better job, becoming an electrician may be a smart choice.

Critics like Murray overstate the cost-benefit analysis problem, though.  Yes, college can lead to significant debt, but only if students and their families ignore the opportunities available at regional universities and community colleges or get lured into high-cost for-profit programs that don’t yield real job opportunities.  Lower-cost options do exist.

The problem is, in part, that the more affordable state institutions are being pressured to offer programs that focus almost entirely on workplace skills, not critical thinking.  As CWCS faculty affiliates Tim Francisco and Alyssa Lenhoff have argued, “while students at the most prestigious schools are learning broad concepts and acquiring intellectual and ethical frameworks for processing complex, multiple, and shifting realities, too often students at lower ‘tier’ institutions are being trained to perform tasks, with one career or vocation the sole goal of their education. One group will likely become the innovators and the entrepreneurs, the other the workers.”

Along with reinforcing existing class divides, this approach ignores the broader social value of education.  Democracy relies on the ability of the people to think critically.  As Nussbaum writes, the abilities that are most “crucial to the health of any democracy” are being threatened in the current emphasis on the cost-benefit analysis of education.  This pits the pursuit of employment, a key part of the American dream, against the basic conditions for effective democracy, a key American value.

So what should I advise Cherise?  Her whole face lit up when I told her that sticking with the English major would not ruin her economic future.  It’s clear that what she really wants to do is keep reading, talking about, and critically analyzing literature and language.  And why shouldn’t she have the same opportunity to pursue her passions that her more privileged peers enjoy?  On the other hand, even as I can point to real professional opportunities for a smart young woman with good writing and research skills, I have to admit that there are no guarantees.  The best I can do is present her with the full range of options and obstacles.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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7 responses to “Should Working-Class People Go to College?

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  2. In terms of the practical side of getting a college degree, the argument against college (for working class students as well as others) rests heavily on the Bureau of Labor Statistics prediction about the educational requirements of future jobs. Yet some researchers have seriously challenged these numbers, as reported over at The Quick & The Ed: http://www.quickanded.com/2010/10/more-college-graduates-needed.html

    I’m not sure who to believe since I’m not a statistician and can’t thoroughly weigh the merits of their methodologies. But I’m inclined to err on the side of college encouragement for all. I’m also supportive of every possible effort to ensure that more students get the kind of education I received at a Seven Sisters school.

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  3. Sherry has given us a good framework for thinking about this issue. I work as a building contractor but I have a B.S. in psychology and went to an elite school (Reed College). I have found that my education has given me a solid foundation for learning and understanding and has expanded my horizons in many respects. It has influenced my place in the working trades as well. My clients tend to be professionals or professors. I think they feel comfortable with me because of my liberal arts training. I can’t say, however, that it has made me more successful as a contractor. It does, however, define my niche within the industry.

    The question of whether a college degree is for everyone has become more difficult with rising tuition costs. Graduating in debt with no job is a rude awakening for many college graduates. I would encourage students to consider the job market before choosing their major.

    In terms of developing a career path with good emplyment possibilities, there are a host of “middle skill” job that appear to have good growth potential in the next decade. These jobs require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four year college degree. The National Skills Coalition called attention to these jobs in 2009 in its report, “Oregon’s Forgotten Middle Skill Jobs.”

    As a final note, finding a meaningful career is a careful balance between following your passion and the pragmatics of earning an income. As for my own situation, I’m still a work in progress.

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  4. I worked a blue collar, furniture making career for 20 years before going back to college. Ultimately I earned my masters and went on to teach at a community college, where I teach now. I can tell you there certainly is NO shame on either side of those equations, but the opportunities and pay vary quite a bit. However, the emotional zen-like trade off is considerable. I worried FAR less in blue collar, ad my responsibilities were much less than I struggle to deal with now. While I appreciate my new found knowledge and opportunities, I do long for an easier balance and daily expectations (debts included).

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  5. There’s certainly no shame in *not* pursuing a four-year degree; that perception needs to be shifted. The key is cultivating learning environments build soft (but necessary) skills: adaptability, critical-thinking, and innovation.

    Our workforce model is shifting; today’s best-employed workers are those who continually re-invent. Vocational training can respond to this reality by preparing students for lifetime learning (rather than an expectation of long-term single-employer stability) while still providing the hard skill training needed for growing industries.

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  6. Yes, let’s acclimatize people to the idea that higher education should be solely for the wealthy. You can’t get ahead now, so don’t even try, is that the attitude we should be cultivating? And really, the working class shouldn’t have a historical context to their situation. After all, they might network, develop solidarity, and throw out, along with the capitalists, the stupid “educators” who want to keep them uneducated and enslaved. Long Live McDonalds and Walmart!

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