Taking Working-Class Students Seriously

As I wrote last week, I was initially surprised by the claim that working-class students are less likely to graduate if they attend a working-class college or university than if they go to a more selective school.  While working-class schools do many things well, including providing support services, lower tuition and expenses, and a more comfortable atmosphere, we can and must do a better job of educating first-generation college students from lower-income households.

Renny Christopher understood this ten years ago.  In an essay on teaching working-class literature in Teaching Working Class, she noted the differences between the undergraduates she taught at the highly selective University of California Santa Cruz and MA students at a much less selective California State University campus.  The differences were not primarily about students’ abilities; rather, Christopher found that the MA students were less interested in exploring theoretical concepts or critical interpretation of literature.  They expected a graduate course in English to emphasize their personal connections with literary texts, because they had been trained to do so.  Some of the more privileged students at UCSC resisted the course content, but they were quite willing to engage with challenging material and ideas.  Her experience persuaded Christopher that “working-class students are oppressed and cheated in both elite and nonelite educational arenas” (220).

Christopher’s experience echoes Jean Anyon’s findings about how working-class and middle-class schools approach education.  While her work focused on K-12 education, her findings should challenge those of us who teach at working-class colleges and universities.  According to Anyon, working-class schools focus on controlling students’ behavior and teaching students to follow directions, fill in worksheets, and memorize facts.  In other words, working-class schools have long provided “workforce preparation” rather than true education.  At middle-class and elite schools, students learn to explore problems, develop their own analyses, and see themselves as knowledge-makers, not just knowledge-consumers.

Do these patterns play out on the college level?  Certainly, many working-class institutions these days emphasize workforce preparation, in part in order to foster local economic development and help disadvantaged students improve their individual economic positions.  At elite colleges, and often even at flagship state universities, faculty and administrators understand that students are likely to succeed professionally regardless of what they study.  Such institutions emphasize research for faculty and, increasingly, provide rich opportunities for students to pursue research, as well.  This approach prepares students for entrepreneurship and management, for graduate study and the professions.  As Christopher noted, her elite students had learned to grapple with theory and criticism, while her working-class students had been trained to see such abstract thinking as useless.  At the working-class institution, she says, students “are not invited into the realm that the true holders of power in our society inhabit, that of theoretical abstraction” (220).

These different missions reinforce students’ attitudes toward college.  Many students go to college these days with stronger interest in getting a diploma than in learning, an attitude that reflects national discourse that defines higher education as a requirement for getting a good job but not as an exploratory, developmental, educational experience.  For working-class students, this instrumentalist attitude may be even stronger, since the best way to justify the cost of higher education is in economic terms.  And public discourse about education encourages students not to care about what they learn and focus only on getting the degree as easily and quickly as possible.

If we want to provide all college students with a good education, many things need to change, from access to funding to the very idea that the only way of measuring college success is years to graduation.  Educational inequality reflects and is reinforced by the social and economic system, and change has to happen in many parts of that system.  As faculty, our ability to change public discourse and policy may be limited, but we can and must challenge the definition of higher education as job preparation.

Along with critiquing this definition and being conscious of the challenges that our working-class students face (at institutions of all kinds), those of us who teach at working-class institutions must take responsibility for what happens in our own classrooms.

Is it possible that one of the reasons working-class students succeed at more selective institutions is that more is asked of them?  Might this not encourage students to wrestle with complex problems and difficult materials?  On the other hand, I worry that our efforts to accommodate working-class students’ needs might inadvertently encourage them to expect less of themselves and to view college as just another hoop to go through.

I don’t mean to disparage my hard-working colleagues at working-class institutions around the country.  Most of us are passionate about serving our students well.  As I noted last week, we sometimes ask less of our students because we think that will help them.  We want them to succeed, so we accommodate their busy lives and work schedules.

And yet, we’re frustrated when students who refuse to do the reading, continue to write muddled papers well into their college careers, skip class and thus don’t learn how to do projects well, and so on.  The temptation, often, is to “dumb down” courses because our students aren’t ready for challenging readings or assignments.

When I hear these concerns from my colleagues, I have to wonder whether we can’t find a different solution.  Instead of asking for less, and possibly cheating our students, couldn’t we give them both serious challenges and serious instruction that helps them learn how to do better work?

Many of those who teach at working-class institutions feel conflicted about how we can best serve our working-class students.  But we don’t have to choose between two evils.  We can raise our expectations and teach our students how to manage difficult readings and abstract thinking.  We can be flexible enough to help them navigate overloaded schedules and demanding enough to engage them in the education that is taking up so much of their time and money.  Painful as it is, we can even talk with them about the inequities of the system, about how working-class students are usually encouraged to get less out of school, and we can encourage them to demand more, of us and of the system.

Sherry Linkon

College Choice and the Success of Working-Class Students

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot of talk about increasing college access for working-class students.  As I have noted before, access is just the starting point.  A new study by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, finds that while lower-income students may be entering college, they are less likely to graduate than their wealthier counterparts.  (It’s worth noting here that their data focuses almost exclusively on income rather than other aspects of class.)  At flagship universities, only 68% of lower-income students graduate in 6 years, compared with 83% of higher-income students.  Across state systems, the numbers are even worse (for both groups): 55% of lower-income students finish in 6 years, while 74% of higher-income students graduate in that time.

Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson identify two primary causes for this disparity.  The first, money, seems obvious.  Especially these days, as workers lose jobs amid the economic crisis, working-class students and their families are more vulnerable to tuition increases as well as other rising college costs, such as books, transportation, and housing.  As states defund higher education, many colleges have responded by raising tuition and other fees, and we shouldn’t be at all surprised that some working-class students drop out, at least for a while.  Working-class families tend to have less wealth to help them get through a tough economic period, so often students’ only option when faced with either lost family income or increased college costs is to drop out of school.

But the other reason offered in Crossing the Finish Line is more surprising:  the authors suggest that lower-income students often “undermatch” in their college choices.  That is, they tend to enroll in less-selective institutions than they could.  Students with family incomes in the lowest quartile and/or whose parents did not attend college are the most likely to choose a less-selective and the authors therefore surmise less demanding college than their test scores and high school grades suggest they could.  While this choice seems to puzzle the authors, it actually makes perfect sense to me.

Many working-class families have limited knowledge about the landscape of higher education, so they may not recognize the differences among types of institutions.  Working-class students may also choose less-selective schools because they are closer to home, less expensive, or offer aid packages that cover more of the cost of attending school.  For others, undermatching may reflect self-doubt about whether they will succeed in college.  Working-class students often have less confidence in their academic abilities than more well-off students have.

As someone who has taught at an open-enrollment university – exactly the kind of place that Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson would see as an “undermatch” for a bright working-class student – I have long believed that less prestigious campuses with many working-class students serve those students well because we are likely to provide a friendlier atmosphere, better support, and stronger faculty commitment to teaching working-class students.  In some cases, such schools also provide more financial aid, and a scholarship at a lower-cost institution can go much further toward covering the cost of college.

Certainly, the experiences of working-class students on elite private or more-selective flagship campuses would support this notion.  As Bobby Allyn notes in an essay on his experience as a working-class student at American University, such elite settings can be alienating.  He advocates creating “spaces where like-minded students from comparable socioeconomic backgrounds can come together and foster a community,” exactly what the Working Class Student Union is doing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

So I was puzzled by the claim that undermatching could undermine students’ academic success.  One reason might be that academic challenge yields better performance.  A Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching study of student learning at community colleges advocates for asking more of our students rather than less.  Faculty who teach working-class students are often tempted to make their courses a little easier than they would at a more elite school.  After all, we know that many of our students come from high schools that didn’t offer strong college prep programs.  Many are also working long hours to pay for school, or commuting long distances to avoid the cost of campus housing.   We’re also concerned about the challenges that single parents face in juggling school, work, and family.  Because we want to help students succeed, we ask a little less.  This study suggests that we may be cheating them.

While feeling like an outsider creates emotional and social obstacles for working-class students, it might also work as an academic motivator.  Such students want to prove that they do belong among their more elite peers, so they may work harder just to “show them,” while on a more working-class campus, they fit in and may feel less of a need to demonstrate their full abilities.  Indeed, working-class schools may even encourage this, as strong networks of support services to help students get through college can communicate, inadvertently, that the goal is to get through, not to excel.  Because middle-class culture emphasizes individual success and competition, more elite campuses may, in contrast, create a stronger atmosphere of achievement.

Another key difference in the educational experiences of working-class students who attend more selective schools and those who undermatch is geographical.  Attending a selective school is, in many cases, more likely to involve moving away from home.  Allyn’s experience is typical, as he went first from Pennsylvania to Ithaca, New York, and later to Washington, DC.  Why would leaving home help?  After all, going away to school usually means leaving behind a family support system.  On the other hand, that very support system can leave working-class students feeling torn between the competing demands of school, which is an essentially individual pursuit, and family, which reflects the greater commitment to the communal that is often part of working-class culture.  When students live near home, the pull of family commitments can often interfere with their school work.  As one of my students explained a few years ago, she had to miss classes for two weeks because her sister was having surgery and she had to look after her young nieces and nephews.  It may well be that families are less likely to make demands on working-class students, and students may be less likely to respond to family needs, if they’re living on a campus more than a few hours’ drive away.

While all of this may explain why working-class students are more likely to graduate if they attend a more selective college, it doesn’t solve the problem.  The real challenge posed by this study is to less selective, more working-class institutions:  how can we do a better job of helping students succeed?   Stay tuned.  I’ll take up that question next time.

Sherry Linkon

The Political Parabola, the Media, and the Direction of Working-Class Populism

Media pundits regularly describe American politics in terms of a spectrum, from far right to far left.  It’s time to recognize that this simplistic model has lost some of its explanatory value. It’s convenient, but it doesn’t adequately describe what is happening politically in the country.

Rather, I have been using the term political parabola. For those who are geometrically-impaired, a parabola looks like the cables on a suspension bridge or half of the McDonald’s golden arches. In the political parabola of American cultural politics, the right meets left politically. The ends of the so-called spectrum – right and left — are closer to each other than they are to the middle. This concept clarifies much current political discourse as well as the way working-class people are represented and are participating in the debates.

People on the political margins have a lot in common these days. For example, many Catholics are at once anti-war and anti-abortion. Here in Youngstown, our former Congressman and newly-released prisoner, James Traficant, is a cross between a West-Texas populist and a member of Posse Comitatas.  Like many liberal commentators, he deploys class and cultural resentments over the economy, government bailouts, foreign policy and a myriad of social issues, often expressed in highly emotional terms.

Meanwhile, on the right, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly are increasing their populist rhetoric as they decry the impact of high unemployment and economic crisis on the working class.  O’Reilly goes in further in Who’s Looking Out for You? He begins by using economist Michael Zweig’s definition of the working class, according to which over 60% of US families are working class, and he goes on to claim that he, O’Reilly, is their best representative.

The result is a growing American style of populism that has a cross-class appeal and important political implications. As Frank Rich has suggested, “The recession-spawned anger that (Glenn) Beck has tapped into on the right could yet find a more mainstream outlet in populist revolt from the left and the center.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are aware of the growing politics of resentment on both ends of the parabola.  It’s hard to determine just how deep this discontent runs, just as it is uncertain how it could influence voting patterns.  At this point, both parties are trying to mobilize the discontent and influence current debates. But as many Democrats have faltered and caved to corporate interests on the health care debate and corporate bailouts, Republicans seem to be winning the battle for the populist hearts and minds. If nothing else, they’re making a lot more noise.  Just look at this summer’s tea parties and town hall meetings.

But where does the working class fit in this emerging populism?  While the protesters’ politics may seem conservative, their social class is not clear.  Some liberal commentators can’t seem to figure out whether to dismiss them as privileged elites (or would-be elites) fighting to protect their own tax breaks or as working-class dupes who don’t understand their economic interests.  Of course, no one asks about income, education, or occupation at these rallies, so it’s hard to know who’s really turning out.

Still, amid their high anxieties about Obama’s citizenship and socialist plots, they do have one thing right:  neither the political debate nor media reports are paying enough attention to how the economic crisis is affecting ordinary Americans.  A recent poll by the Pew Project on Excellence in Journalism indicates that economic news pays more attention to banking and finance, the auto crisis, and the stimulus package than to the impact of the economic down turn on housing, unemployment, and the lives of working Americans. To help improve reporting on the current economic crisis, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism has even initiated a new Nieman Watchdog project entitled “Reporting on the Collapse.”

Class confusion is nothing new in America, but given the current state of affairs, we need to keep in mind a few key points about working-class populism.  One, the working class is diverse culturally, politically, and geographically.  That means that the “working-class position” is always complex and contested.  Second, the recession has added large numbers to the working class, as people who once thought of themselves as comfortably middle-class struggle to recover from the loss of jobs, homes, and retirement accounts. Consequently, any analysis that views the working class as dupes or no longer relevant economically or electorally may be short-sighted. Today’s working class is probably both larger and better educated than at any point in American history. Third, as unemployment grows, working-class populists may push even conservatives to view government spending more positively. We’ve seen this recently with conservative politicians in Texas who initially refused to accept stimulus funds but are fighting to make get their share of public support.   Even conservatives know that hungry citizens can be dangerous.

John Russo

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Bending the Cost Curve on Health Care

After a summer of “lying Muslim, socialist Hitler” vitriol, a recent Pew Research Center poll shows that two-thirds of Americans think President Obama is “a strong leader” who is “trustworthy” and is “someone who cares about people like me.”  Though the President does not score as high on general approval or for his “handling of health care reform” (and for good reason), his character numbers are a major asset as we finally get into the substance of what kind of health care we are going to have in this country.

On the substance of reform, the details are devilishly complex not only because several variations are still being debated in Congress, but also because the economics of health care are actually just a little less complicated than brain science.  Fortunately, as public debate moves toward real issues of substance, we are all likely to go rapidly up a learning curve on something that is as morally and economically important to us as individuals as it is for us as a nation.

For example, after this summer’s now thoroughly debunked charge that Obama was proposing “government death panels,” there should be more interest in a study that will be published this December in The American Journal of Public Health.  The study calculates that each year about 45,000 Americans die because they lack health insurance coverage.  As lead author Dr. Andrew Wilper explains:

The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately  insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors and           baseline health. We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from     hypertension, diabetes and heart disease – but only if patients can get into our        offices and afford their medications.

45,000 of what the study calls “excess deaths” (meaning people died unnecessarily) is a small percentage of all U.S. deaths in a year, but think of it this way:  It’s five times the number of American deaths caused by the terrorist attack on 9-11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past eight years.  Or, it’s equivalent to four towns the size of Wasilla, Alaska.  Even in the best of systems, accidents happen, mistakes are made, but about 45,000 Americans die needlessly every year because we choose as a nation to make access to health care a lottery game.

Likewise, though eyes glaze over when the President talks about “bending the cost curve on health care,” recent news coverage of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual report on health care costs helps illustrate why that bending is so important.   The average annual cost for family coverage more than doubled from about $6,000 to $13,500 in the past ten years, and it’s projected to nearly double to $24,000 in the next ten.  Employers typically pay about 73 percent of the total cost – which will be about $17,500 by 2019, or an increase of $7,700 a year over what they are paying now.  If this were a tax increase, conservative Republicans would call it a Giant Job Killer that will undermine economic growth, but though it appears as an increase in labor costs on employer balance sheets, these increases have exactly the same effect as tax increases would – fewer jobs, slower economic growth, and in this case, fewer employers providing health insurance for their workers.  Likewise, those workers who still have jobs with health insurance in 2019 will see their premiums increase from $3,500 a year now to more than $6,000 a year then.  This is what will happen if nothing is done.

“Bending the cost curve” is not about government budgets.  It’s about reducing the rate of increase of both health insurance and health delivery costs.  By 2019, according to Kaiser, the average worker will be paying at least $500 a month for family coverage, versus about $300 now.  If Obamacare can “bend the cost curve,” it will not mean that average insurance costs will actually go down, but that they would increase to only, say, $400 a month – $100 a month more than now, but a savings of $100 a month from what will happen if nothing is done.

What’s more, under Obamacare tens of millions of families will have some part of their premiums paid by federal government tax credits – 100 percent for families earning less than $29,000 and smaller percentages for families earning as much as $88,000.  When you add it all up, most working-class families should eventually see a real increase in their disposable incomes.

These tax credit subsidies need to be paid for, however, and that’s why the debate on health reform may initiate a sensible discussion about increasing taxes.  As I’ve documented in my last three blogs, progressive think tanks are finally starting to do the math on how to raise taxes on the top 5 percent of taxpayers.   The leading progressive outfit on this topic, Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), recently did a Review and Comparison of Six Progressive Options to Finance Health Care Reform.  CTJ provides three “moderate” options, which together would produce about $70 billion a year, more than enough to pay for the health insurance tax credits and all other aspects of Obamacare.  The increased taxes would fall almost exclusively on the top 1 percent of taxpayers whose average annual income is $1.5 million, and it would cost those folks an average of $45,000 a piece.  The next 4 percent from the top, with average incomes of about $280,000, would see their taxes increase by about $700 a year.

If I made $1.5 million a year, I’d be glad to pay an extra $45,000 in taxes just to live in a country where nobody died because they lacked health insurance.  But I’d also probably be economically savvy enough to know that a substantial increase in working-class incomes is good for business and that the President is right when he claims that the future of our economy is riding on bending that cost curve.

Jack Metzgar