The notion that education, particularly a college degree, is the key to career success is a particularly American idea. It is what the sociologists W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson have called "the education gospel," a national ethos of hard work in school paying off and of equal opportunity for all. Politicians of every stripe have addressed unemployment by advising the unemployed to take individual responsibility for their futures by learning new skills and by reinventing themselves for a global economy where opportunity will materialize for those with the right credentials.
And workers have responded to the call. As The New York Times reported recently, there are now more students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education than ever before. Today, women attend college in record numbers, and, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003, the number of African American, Hispanic, and other minorities enrolled in college reached the highest levels in history.
This all seems like very good news. With millions more students attending college, it makes sense to ask whether their degrees will pay off.
First of all, it is debatable whether a majority of future job openings will require a college degree. While the economist Tony Carnevale argues that jobs that require some college education will help lead a slow and painful recovery from the current recession, The New York Times reports that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most job growth in the next decade will be in labor markets where a bachelor's degree is not necessary. Furthermore, the cost of attending college has risen dramatically in recent years. Conflicting claims about the economic value of a degree along with skyrocketing tuition raise a question about whether college is a good investment for all students, especially those low-income students who can least afford to spend money and years on a higher education venture that may not produce rewards.
Secondly, the issue of college payoff becomes even more complicated when we consider that many students who begin college will not complete degrees. While the U.S. leads the world in college attendance, it is ranked near the bottom in the number of students who actually graduate. In fact, college access, which is touted as a symbol of our meritocratic ideals, leads to a degree for only about half of all students who enroll. Completion rates are even lower for first-generation collegians and people of color. According to education researcher Peter Sacks, the chance that a low-income child will earn a bachelor's degree is no higher today than it was in 1970, a grave contradiction in the meritocratic narrative of the education gospel.
In fact, as the sociologist Annette Lareau has shown in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, the qualities that lead to academic success are not linked to college access, effort, or intelligence, but to accidents of birth. For the most part, the children of affluent parents attend the best colleges and get the best jobs. Opening the doors of higher education has not altered this basic arrangement. Still, the myth persists that, to get ahead in life, the first thing you ought to do is write a tuition check.
These days it is more likely that a student's first tuition bill will be paid with money from a loan. What looks like an investment in the future, however, can often turn into an economic disaster. For example, let me tell you about Valerie, an immigrant from Haiti, who had always dreamed of becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree. After high school in Harlem, Valerie spent six years at a private, nonprofit, open-door college in New York City accumulating credits for a psychology degree that she finally completed in 2006.
One year after graduation, the only job she could find was working as a teacher's aide (a position that did not require a bachelor's) for $14,000 per year. She also had to work as a salesperson in a clothing store to make ends meet. This might not have been so bad except that, after years of student loans, Valerie owed almost $60,000, a sum she could never hope to repay. After returning to the same college to earn a M.A. degree, Valerie found a job as a social worker earning a $33,000 annual salary. While this was a big step up from her teacher's aide job, Valerie was still unable to meet her financial obligations, and she had begun to question whether her six-year investment of time and money had been worth it. "Is this my American dream? Am I living it now?" she wondered.
There are many students like Valerie who have been led to believe that higher education is the key to a better life. We can all point to success stories in which nontraditional collegians achieve a sense of purpose and satisfaction in the life of the mind, earn degrees, and find jobs worthy of their tremendous effort and intelligence. But there is a pervasive silence in academe about the tarnished hopes and debt loads of many other students who do not complete degrees. In 2009, Public Agenda reported that most students who leave college list economic concerns as the number one reason they did not graduate. Many smart, dedicated students who want to go to college simply cannot afford to do so. And, as Valerie's case makes clear, even those students who do graduate may not find great demand for their skills at the end of a college-to-work road paved with debt.
Student loans like the ones that financed Valerie's education are the most burdensome to nontraditional collegians, especially working-class students and people of color. These students are disproportionately enrolled in institutions that do not look anything like the colleges of popular imagination in which full-time students live on residential campuses, party on fraternity row, and attend football games.
The dire situation on many campuses has been painfully documented in Inside Higher Ed by Wick Sloane, who has studied the realities of academic life for students at a two-year college in Boston. These students are commuters who sleep in their cars and attend classes in the evenings after working all day in low-wage jobs. They take their fear, stress, and economic anxiety into overcrowded classes taught mostly by underpaid, part-time teachers while "federal tax policies . . . subsidize Ivy League and other wealthy-college students by at least $20,000 per student." These conditions suggest that underfunded colleges do a disservice to poor and minority students.
This is a position much at odds with the official designation of two-year colleges as democratic ports of entry to the middle class.
Don’t get me wrong. Many two-year colleges and open-door institutions have wonderful programs run by committed faculty and administrators who have the best interests of students in mind. Yet the Herculean efforts of these educators do not change the fact that many nonselective colleges serve the same function: they keep disaffected unemployed and low-income people out of the labor market by warehousing them in college classrooms where students pay handsomely for an education that may not serve their economic interests.
Making this argument is difficult because it sounds like I am discouraging low-income and minority students from going to college. This could not be further from the truth.
Rather, I am proposing that those of us working in academe begin to dismantle the myth that higher education can facilitate social mobility on a mass scale. In fact, the opposite is true. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, "the average effect of education at all levels is to reinforce rather than compensate for the differences associated with family background and the many home-based advantages and disadvantages that children and adolescents bring with them into the classroom." This is a shattering indictment of the education gospel. Dismantling this myth means being honest with ourselves and with our students about the role of higher education in reproducing class inequality across generations.
Such honesty also means acknowledging that mass access to college does not and cannot provide upward mobility to the vast majority of students who seek it. Access to higher education can only be one part of what must become a broad social movement to redress income inequality that is higher than it has been since the 1920s. College graduates, like Valerie, should be able to earn a living wage.
But we shouldn't stop there. As the Economic Policy Institute researcher Richard Rothstein writes, "It is certainly possible for retail salespersons, fast-food workers, and home health care aides to earn middle-class incomes, but this won't happen because these workers got postsecondary training." Rather, it will be because they have "much stronger minimum-wage and labor-union protections, [and] economic security with good health care."
Class is not a result of merit or effort or hard work paying off. It is largely a legacy transferred between generations. No matter how many college degrees are distributed, we still tolerate a system that doles out limited rewards to all but a privileged few. In this climate, the pursuit of elusive degrees more often functions as a distraction from what really provides security to families and children: good jobs at fair wages, robust unions, affordable access to health care and transportation, and a sound, affordable education for everyone, regardless of background.
These are all factors unacknowledged in the push to convince people that that, if they can't find a job, they should take sole responsibility for their fate, sign up for that first student loan, and get their pencils ready.
Ann Larson is recent graduate of the Ph.D. program in English (composition and rhetoric) at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She is a writing fellow at CUNY's Hunter College.