‘The Educated Underclass’

Author discusses new book in which he questions whether most colleges are living up to their claims about promoting social mobility -- and whether college degrees do enough for low-income students.

June 7, 2019

College leaders talk often about recruiting low-income students and promoting their advancement, educationally and economically. A new book questions whether their actions match their rhetoric.

The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility (Pluto Press) is sharply critical of patterns in higher education -- even as it argues that the lack of social mobility remains a serious problem for American society. The author is Gary Roth, a sociologist at Rutgers University at Newark. He responded via email to questions about his new book.

Q: Many higher education leaders see postsecondary education as the key to social mobility. You suggest otherwise. Why?

A: The equation of postsecondary education with upward mobility has been out of date for a half century already. It was based on the rapid expansion of the economy following World War II, when for the first time massive numbers of students from working-class backgrounds were admitted into the collegiate system. Since the 1990s, however, a very different, and much more complicated, situation has prevailed. While college enrollments increased by more than 40 percent between then and now, a third of those graduates wound up in jobs that do not require a college education. For recent graduates of four-year institutions, the figure is over 40 percent. If a college degree is still a means of social uplift, it is because a substantial portion of graduates compete in the employment markets against nongraduates. Meantime, everyone without a four-year degree faces intensified competition for the decently paying jobs that still remain.

Q: How does the hierarchy of higher education prestige reinforce class structure?

A: Education is one of the primary means through which society is structured. Not everyone goes to college, and of those who do, not everyone receives a bachelor’s degree. This alone splits the population into three identifiable groups, whereby occupations and earnings correlate with the level of education. But also, of the two-thirds who attend some amount of postsecondary education, a minority attend four-year residential colleges. Among the latter, sharp divisions divide the schools in terms of rankings, all of which has profound implications for a student’s future. The data on these sorts of things is pretty dismal. Some of the most prestigious schools, for instance, admit more applicants from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent, while 70 percent of the students at the "most competitive" schools hail from the top 25 percent. Privilege and talent are reinforcing characteristics.

Q: How does job preparation factor into your theory?

A: On the collegiate level, some of the fields that are assumed to best prepare students for work have some of the worst records. This is especially true for nontechnical pre-professional majors, such as criminal justice, leisure and hospitality, and public policy and law, where recent graduates of four-year institutions face rates of un- and underemployment of two-thirds or more. But even in fields that are in great demand, for instance the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), un- and underemployment rates hover around 30 percent. Students at two-year institutions are so thoroughly ignored in higher education research that data on underemployment do not exist. The two-year community colleges have as their central mission job preparation. Yet, half of all 25- to 34-year-olds with a two-year associate degree earn $38,000 or less for full-time, year-round employment, not sufficiently better than the recognized minimum "living" wage of $31,200 ($15 per hour for a 40-hour week) deemed as necessary for "independent" living.

Q: Many point to the Raj Chetty data as key to analyzing whether colleges are in fact promoting social mobility. What do you think of those data?

A: I am not convinced that the Chetty data tells us as much as everyone would like. According to his research team, the most successful institutions in promoting upward mobility and propelling students far above the socioeconomic status of their childhood backgrounds tend to be urban public universities, state colleges and community colleges. But these are also institutions with high levels of immigrant students or the children of immigrants, to whom special circumstances pertain. Immigrants are subjected to woefully inadequate wages, because of insufficient English-language skills, discriminatory workplace practices or professional licenses that aren’t recognized in the United States. Thus, a pharmacist from Egypt becomes a building superintendent in the United States. Many of these immigrants, however, are college-educated, despite their precarious socioeconomic status. And because college-educated parents are a major determinant of a child’s future social status, the children of immigrants often are college bound and experience rapid upward mobility. Because the Chetty data does not isolate immigrants as a separate category, it is unclear if upward mobility is due to the success of attending an urban public institution, or whether parental background plays an even more pronounced role than is generally true.

Q: Many colleges boast of spots they offer low-income students and say that is the key to social mobility. What is wrong with this analysis?

A: This is perfectly correct. Attending an elite institution despite one’s own lack of an elite upbringing is a near-surefire mode of scaling upward the income and wealth ladders that stratify society. Nonetheless, only so many students can attend a Villanova or a Princeton University. Even if elite institutions choose their student bodies without reference to a family’s ability to pay, the majority of college attendees will be excluded. Hierarchy, segregation by socioeconomic status and privilege are inherent to how the educational system is structured.

Q: Are there a few policies that should be adopted in higher education that would better promote social mobility?

A: The higher education community has focused almost exclusively on educational access -- with keen scrutiny of the factors that determine college readiness, application and admission, attendance, credit accumulation, and retention and graduation. There are many fine programs that focus on each of these areas, often with stellar results. Funding is the key issue. Postgraduation outcomes, however, remain an underresearched area. Hardly anything is known about what happens to graduates once they are finished with their schooling, other than general outcomes regarding income levels, graduate education and relative social mobility (compared to their parents).

Nonetheless, higher education can only accomplish what society in general is ready for. What takes place in higher education is symptomatic of processes at work in society at large. When graduates of four-year institutions face chronic underemployment, the graduates of two-year institutions encounter careers pegged at the low end of the compensation scale and society at large contends with other major and seemingly intractable problems -- such as stagnating wages, a sluggish economy, an avaricious elite, a gridlocked political system, heightened warmongering globally and a physical world that is visibly disintegrating before our eyes -- only large-scale societywide solutions are possible.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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