Why Doesn’t the Working Class Get with It and Go to College?

EDUCATIONAL LEVELS DO NOT just reflect social class, they are constitutive of it. Graduating from college is a class act that both enacts class status and reproduces it.

Pierre Bourdieu, whose name is associated with the idea that class is expressed through cultural differences, urges us to pay attention to the taken-for-granted assumptions different groups use to create their reality.95 Higher education is a perfect example: in elite families, it’s simply unthinkable not to go to college (no matter how much debt you have to take on to do it). A common sentiment among the white working class is that college is optional—and sometimes, undesirable.

Michael Long* expressed it this way: “You don’t need a college degree, you need to have a skill that people will pay you for. It’s as simple as that. . . . [S]ometimes the poor decision is going to college.” That is a common working-class attitude. A typical elite response comes from a software engineer: “My seemingly cutting-edge job [is] only as secure as I made it for myself . . . why in God’s name am I supposed to feel sympathy for people whose laziness and sense of entitlement runs so deep that they are pining for jobs that were already gone before they were born?”

“And they refuse any other work except the jobs that have been lost to advances in technology and trade? The kind of jobs that are NEVER coming back?” commented Amanda Fernandez.* “I feel terrible about your father-in-law but for some reason, he did not pursue a path out of his plight,” Rachel Corbett wrote me. “Why did he not pursue education or learn a trade? So that he could work at a job he may have liked? . . . If the white working class’s lot in life is so bad, why don’t they do something? Go to school.”

As blue-collar jobs disappeared and communities withered in rural areas and Rust Belt cities, we have not responded with good jobs for “school leavers” (as the British call them). That phrase says it all: if you want a good living, get a college education and a white-collar future. If you leave school, you get what you deserve.

On the right, the talk is of bootstraps and college loans. On the left, it’s of Pell grants and affordable tuitions. But the prescription is the same: a college degree. This ignores an important fact: only 33% of Americans obtain college degrees.96 Two-thirds of Americans do not have college degrees. I’m always surprised by how few people in the PME know this fact.

The working class is not flocking to college. In the past three decades, college graduates’ earnings have climbed to 60% higher than those of high school graduates, but the proportion of Americans who completed four-year degrees has not risen substantially. A slight increase in the percentage of women who graduate was offset by a decrease in the percentage of men.97

Insistence on college makes sense for professional elite kids: for them, it’s the prerequisite that allows them to reproduce their parents’ class status. But college may not make economic sense for working-class kids. It’s a much riskier decision that may not pay off. Working-class kids worry they might end up with a first-class degree and still fail to get a job because they don’t know the unwritten social codes of professional life; a British news report told of class migrants failing to get investment banking jobs in London because they didn’t know the “no brown in town” rule (i.e., don’t wear brown shoes in the City).98 Vance relied on his professional-class girlfriend to explain the folkways of her class. Without her, he notes, he lacked the social capital to navigate an elite career. At an interview, he called her from the restroom to find out which fork to use. Lucky he did: “the[se] interviews were about passing a social test—a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.”99

Research by Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik put some numbers behind this when they sent over 300 fictitious resumes to 147 top law firms. “All applicants were in the top 1% of their class and were on law review,” and they had identical (and impressive) work and academic achievements, they write. The researchers also inserted subtle cues about social class “via accepted and often required portions of resumes: awards and extracurricular activities.” For example, the lower-class applicant was listed as enjoying pick-up soccer and country music and volunteered as a mentor for fellow first-generation college students, while the upper-class applicant enjoyed sailing and classical music and volunteered as a generic student mentor.

The employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man: over 16% of his resumes resulted in a callback. Only about 1% of the lower-class man’s resumes did so, even though he was just as qualified.100 What’s the payoff on his education?

Americans assume college is a class escalator, and it can be for the nonelite kids who make it into Yale or Harvard. But few do. A recent study found that 38 colleges, including five in the Ivy League, have more students from the top 1% than from the entire bottom 60% of the income distribution. Far less than 10% of college students in the middle three quintiles of family income go to very selective schools, and less than 3% go to elites or Ivys.101

The American higher education system operates as a “caste system: it takes Americans who grew up in different social strata and it widens the divisions between them,” concludes public policy expert Suzanne Mettler.102 It’s easier for elite kids to get into selective schools because parents’ social networks give them access to the people who matter and because elite kids can do the unpaid internships and community service selective colleges now expect to see on their applications. It’s also just easier to get in, period. A child from the professional elite is three times more likely to be admitted to a selective private institution than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.103

At a more basic level, working-class kids not only may not know how to get into elite schools; often they don’t even understand that there’s a big difference between going to Amherst and Michigan State. Indeed, they may have never heard of Amherst. One class migrant who ended up attending Brown wrote that her guidance counselor didn’t have much guidance to give: “He didn’t know much about Brown or any other schools I was applying to, didn’t have any advice for applying, and didn’t look into it afterwards.” Her younger sister, who ended up at Wellesley, fared little better: her counselor didn’t even know where Wellesley was. She also remembers that their counselors would sometimes actively discourage them and their friends from applying to top-tier schools. The attitude was “You’ll never get in, that’s not for you, why’d you want to go there?” remembers their cousin.

Part of this is geographical. Kids are more likely to hear about a college that is close by, and fully 57% of selective colleges are in the Northeast or California.104 So-called education deserts, or communities in which there are either zero colleges or universities, or only one community college nearby, are mostly situated in the rural areas of the Midwest and Great Plains, where many white working-class kids live. In contrast, professional-class kids often go to colleges far from home. Their families miss them, but typically feel it would be inappropriate to complain. Not so with working-class families, who expect their kids to remain in their families’ clique network throughout their lives. (This is particularly true of Latinos, but also holds for many whites.)105

Even if they’ve heard about selective schools, working-class kids of all races also know they’re expensive. They may not know scholarships are available, or may be unable to pay even application fees.

And like poor kids, working-class kids may be less likely to have the kind of school records that make them eligible for admission at selective schools. In the professional elite, learning disabilities typically lead to intensive tutoring and private school; in overcrowded public schools, similar kids may be treated as just average if they are well behaved, or downright disruptive if they disinvest in school. Many working-class parents can’t help with homework, because their work schedules take them away from home in the evenings. They may not know the difference between college-prep and non-college-prep courses; they may not know much of anything about college entrance exams either.

Working-class college students who do go to college typically go to schools close to home with modest reputations. Though attending those schools may cost less than a selective school that is farther away (studying close to home allows students to save on transportation and living expenses),106 the return on investment is not clear cut. Wage inequality has increased among college graduates. Today, a top-earning male college graduate earns 90% more than a low-earning one; in 1979, that figure was 60% for women and 70% for men. One reason for the decreased returns to some with college degrees is that an increasing number of male college grads end up in low- or medium-skilled jobs. And a significant proportion of both male (19.4%) and female (14.0%) college grads earn less than does the average high-school graduate.107

And then there’s the debt. “I still value education,” wrote Diana Johnson,* “although it has gotten me nowhere, and in much debt.” Average college debt among graduating seniors who had taken out student loans more than doubled between 1986 and 2008,108 and increased 56% in the decade before 2014.109 In the 30 years since 1980, “the inflation-adjusted cost of college tuition and fees rose as much or more than the returns to a college education.”110 Taking on this amount of debt is a risky business for a kid from a working-class family. Students who don’t complete their degrees may end up worse off than if they’d never started: with a lot of debt, and no extra earning power. In 2009, student loans were siphoning off 35% of college dropouts’ annual income.111

Another reason many working-class kids don’t go to college is that they don’t want to be “pencil pushers.”112 “A great many people in agriculture, from the person driving the tractor or loading feed at the co-op all the way to allied industry executives, honestly take pride in the fact they are feeding the world. Don’t laugh at this,” wrote Cathy Bandyk.* Oil workers are proud they keep the economy going.113 Others want to work with their hands or believe that being a firefighter adds greater value to the community than designing ever-more-attention-grabbing Google ads.

And then there’s that uncomfortable fact that some aren’t suited to intellectual work. “The mantra on more college, more college . . . is a good theory, but could everyone learn in the higher spectrum of knowledge? And if you cannot learn to be ‘smart’ but possess a strong back and a strong work ethic . . . [s]hould that be diminished to tiny wages with no benefits although the occupation be a societal necessity? . . . I was raised to respect all working people and so I continue and muddle on,” commented Leo Baranovsky.*

So there are lots of reasons why college, which is such a no-brainer investment for professional-class kids, may not be as good or as safe an investment for working-class kids. They’re not ignorant and lazy. They just live in a different world.

Moreover, those who try to move from a familiar world to a new one often uncomfortably end up with one foot in each. The class culture gap can create uncomfortable rifts between class migrants and their families. “My dad was a taxi driver,” an Irish professional wrote me. “After every degree, he would say, half joking but wholly in earnest, ‘what can you do now?’ When I got my first PhD and could teach, he stopped asking. I know he was happy for me, but fundamentally he was pretty sure these professional jobs were bullshit jobs. 15 years later I’m more on his side than I thought.”

When a Harvard-educated lawyer went into public interest law, his working-class parents found his career path mysterious. “What did they expect?” I asked. “Isn’t this what they wanted?” Nope: “What they wanted was for me to stay in [the Rust Belt city where he grew up] and buy a big car and a big house. Sort of like the real estate agent my mom worked for.” What they wanted was to keep him home, in body and mind—just with more money. That’s not what they got.114

Incomprehension may bleed into hostility. “That’s the education talking,” class migrants often hear. “I feel like I have changed sides in some very important game,” noted one.115 Lamont mentions the disapproval of “people who forget where they come from.”116 “Admitting to ability or intelligence was a great sin and indicated that you were ‘stuck on yourself,’” noted another class migrant. She worked in her hometown as a carhop to make money for college and went to great pains to fit in. She thought she’d succeeded when the handsomest boy around asked her out. But then he stood her up, and she gradually realized the whole thing had been deliberately planned. “Perhaps in their view, it was retribution because they were somehow being stood up by me. I was deserting my class; they knew their place.”117

Finally, there are the insults working-class students experience in the classroom. “[M]any of the professors resented having to teach us. One of them once described in class the mission of the school as ‘teaching the first generation of immigrant children how to eat with a knife and fork,’” said a class migrant from an immigrant background.118 Professors typically attended elite institutions, and some feel deflated and resentful when they end up teaching working-class kids at lower-ranked schools. Professors who would never let a racist comment pass their lips openly embrace “the stereotype of the southern redneck as racist, sexist, alcoholic, ignorant, and lazy. . . . redneck jokes may be the last acceptable ethnic slurs in ‘polite’ society,” reports a Southern class migrant.119 “A lot of my friends who did not make it to college were those who would not stand for that kind of treatment; they insulted back,” noted another class migrant.120 Yet another reason working-class kids don’t go to college or finish it.

Socially, working-class students can also be ostracized. It’s not unusual for college parties to have a “white trash” or “trailer trash” theme, even as themes that stigmatize other groups have been banned. How welcome would you feel at a party in which you and your family were unselfconsciously called garbage?

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