Thirty years ago, after having dropped out of college after just one term, unable to pay for my dorm room, I was unsure if I would ever leave the working class. Two years later I was a student at Barnard College, an elite small liberal arts college three thousand miles from my parents’ home. To this day, I am not sure how I made that leap, but it was smoothed over by significant financial assistance from the college. Unable to pay for my public university, I was able to graduate from one of the best private colleges in the country virtually debt-free.
Now I study higher education and its connection to what we call intergenerational social mobility, the movement (or lack of movement) between classes, comparing children and parents’ occupational outcomes over time.
I have some bad news. While the path I took was not easy, gaining social mobility through college education is much harder for young people today. Ironically, even as more children of the working class go to college, the educational attainment gap between the middle class and the working class continues to grow.
How can this be? For one thing, the bar for “being educated” continues to rise. As more people earn college degrees than ever before, the kind of college degree increasingly matters. What type of institution? What major field of study? Also important is the level of education – in many fields a four-year degree is no longer enough to assure a middle-class salaried job. You need a master’s degree, or even a PhD, for some work, even outside of academia.
Scholars of education (including sociologists like me) have known all of this for a while now, which is why so many of us have studied access to colleges and programs. Colleges have struggled to open their doors to first-generation and working-class students. They are paying more attention to ways of broadening access, sometimes pushed and shoved into doing so by state boards of higher education. At the same time, budget cuts at public colleges and universities undercut many of these efforts.
But getting working-class students into colleges is only half the battle. Keeping them and helping them thrive has proven difficult. I explore some of the many reasons for this in my first book, The Burden of Academic Success: marginalization, impostor syndrome, feeling out of place. Even at open access two-year public colleges and universities that are the most open to working-class students, middle-class students predominate.
My experiences at Barnard reflect why that matters. I rarely talked to anyone about my family, and, when I did, I regretted the ridicule, mockery, and disbelief. I knew I was different. Most of the time I was too busy juggling off-campus work and an overloaded academic schedule to care, but the isolated feeling was always lurking in the background. If I hadn’t an abundant scholarship, I know I would have left. As Tony Jack reminds us, “access is not inclusion.”
Getting working-class students into college and keeping them has proven difficult, but not impossible. Successes – like me, Tony Jack, all the working-class academics out there — do exist. Here’s the real problem: even when we succeed academically, the gap between us and everyone else increases after we graduate, as Debbie Warnock’s remarkably honest account of her move into and through the academy so poignantly demonstrates.
In Amplified Advantage: Going to A “Good College” in an Era of Inequality, I demonstrate the many ways that parental resources and class cultures amplify the preexisting advantages of some students, even as colleges provide all students a solid education, expanded social networks, and useful cultural capital. Based on a national survey of college students attending small liberal arts colleges, interviews, and a follow-up survey with recent college graduates, I found that colleges like Barnard did a lot of things well for their students. Students generally had frequent interactions with faculty and peers, ample opportunities for doing research outside of class, abundant extracurricular activities, and a lot of institutional support for individual growth. Given the quality of education and opportunity provided, the average $50,000 annual price tag for elite schools actually seems worthwhile, especially when low-income and working-class students receive sufficient financial assistance.
And yet, for all these colleges do to provide an equal playing field for students (all live on campus, everyone takes small classes, almost everyone is involved in useful extracurricular activities), once students graduate, their experiences and opportunities deviate sharply. More elite students can leverage their advantages and resources in ways unavailable to other students. They may, for example, take a risk on joining a start-up company, knowing that they have resources to fall back on if this risk does not pay off. Others may rely on parental financial assistance to spend a year in New York City working at an unpaid internship or working for a nonprofit in a position that pays very little, expecting that such work will eventually pay off in a more secure and remunerative position. Still others call on the friends and social networks of wealthy parents in the financial sector to ensure them high-paying jobs immediately after graduation, despite relatively shaky grades. Where elite students can afford to take big risks with potential big payoffs, knowing that the risk is ultimately ensured, working-class students’ choices are heavily constrained by circumstance and necessity. Even compared with more middle-class peers, who may owe just as much in student loans, working-class students are much more likely to take jobs that they do not like and that do not match their skillsets in order to repay student debt. They may have accrued a ton of social and cultural capital while in college, but they can’t make use of it in the way of their peers.
In an increasingly unequal world, where elites outpace all others, reforming higher education from within won’t solve the problem. Class inequities shape students’ opportunities from before they enter college and long after they graduate. To the contrary, if we focus on education as the primary tool to level the playing field, we lose sight of the larger battle. As Andrew Sayer cautions, even reform efforts with egalitarian motives “are likely to be twisted by the field of class forces in ways which reproduce class hierarchy.” In other words, the more we turn to education as a way out of class struggle, the more we may actually end up amplifying advantages of the few.
And we cannot afford to do that now. The time for ignoring the larger class struggle has passed, as we are all implicated in the game that is being played. Simply put, expanding opportunities does not work because some players start off with extra resources, and they will use all the tools they have at their disposal to amplify their advantages. Struggles might ensue over the value of those tools, which suit is “trump,” and which advantages accrue the most chips, but as the pot grows bigger and the stakes get higher, the game is still rigged against those who begin with fewer chips. Do we want to keep playing this game? Do we know how to stop? It’s time to stop asking how we can get more people into college and start asking why it matters.
Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University