College and the New Class Divide

Contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to improve their lives, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families, argues Jeffrey J. Williams.

July 11, 2016

We usually think of college as providing a boost up the class ladder. That is what it did for a generation or more of Americans, particularly from the 1950s through the 1970s. But since around 1980, college has actually calcified class in America.

That’s one upshot of Tamara Draut’s new book, Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America (Doubleday, 2016). She explains how the central divide between the working class and the middle class now is college. Not that things are entirely rosy for those with bachelor’s degrees, but those without degrees have experienced a more severe pinch, with proportionately shrinking wages, degraded conditions, few job protections and general insecurity.

Moreover, contrary to college standing as an open thoroughfare for Americans wanting to rise, it has become a gated toll road primarily available to those from middle-class and upper-class families. Those who have gone to college beget those who go to college: if your parents didn’t go to college, you are much more likely to work at or near minimum wage. Only about 9 percent of those from the lowest quartile of wealth complete college degrees, whereas about three-quarters from the top quartile do.

A key impediment has been the exponential rise of tuition prices since the 1970s, at several times the rate of inflation, correlated with the reduction of public support, which in turn has brought the steep increase in student debt and student work hours.

This has produced what Draut called in an earlier essay “The Growing College Gap,” in Inequality Matters: The Growing Economic Divide in America and Its Poisonous Consequences. We usually think that we have seen great progress if not solved the problem of racial inequality, but the enrollment gap between white students and black students was about 5 percent in 1970, whereas it had more than doubled, to 11 percent, in 2000. Similarly, Hispanic students have seen the gap widen from 5 to 13 percent. Affirmative action gets headlines, but we have actually gone backward in attaining racial equality in higher education.

One of Draut’s key insights is that the class divide is not just a matter of money but also one of culture. As she remarks, “When once a steelworker and an accountant could live on the same block, drive the same car, vacation at the same place and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s” those from higher classes have little substantive contact with those from the working class except when they ring up their groceries or take care of their elderly relatives.

That has precipitated a public and political blindness to the new working class, even though it constitutes 60 percent of Americans. Rather than a silent majority, it is an invisible majority.

The cultural divide has two daunting consequences. Because those who work in journalism and other news media come from the upper, college-degreed cohort -- as Draut adduces, in 1971 only about half of journalists had B.A.s, whereas 92 percent do now -- they have little direct sense of the working class. Nor is there a strong interest to represent it in the main news organs, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, whose audiences are largely college educated.

In Draut’s analysis, after the 2008 crash, about half of the news focused on the banks, a third on the federal response, a fifth on businesses and only a smattering on working-class people who might have lost jobs or their houses. Rather, the Post ran a feature on a banker getting by on a reduction of her salary -- to $300,000 a year. Hard times indeed.

Similarly, those who work as congressional staffers come almost entirely from college backgrounds. Of high-level staffers, about half “attended private colleges for their undergraduate degree, including 10 percent who went to an Ivy League school.” They are typically the ones who get the internships inside the D.C. beltway, as well as can afford to carry the expenses of internships.

That has effectively shut the working class out of public representation or political power, even though it constitutes a majority. For Draut, the key is to change the narrative, popping what she calls the “class bubble.” One corrective is simply that we are not all middle class: most Americans are working class.

In addition, Sleeping Giant shows that the present working class no longer fits the iconic image of the construction worker in hard hat who had a union to speak for him. Instead, it is largely female, about half Latino and African-American, usually nonunionized, and struggling to make ends meet at or near minimum wage while laboring in home health care, fast food and retail, which have gained the bulk of new jobs.

Since college is a key class marker, it’s easy to blame higher education itself as the problem. But for Draut the problem lies in the policies that have drained equal opportunity from it and segregated it, and in turn she advocates policies to enhance public higher education, notably reducing tuition fees and eliminating student debt. In this, she differs from the diagnosis of John Marsh, who argues in Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality (Monthly Review, 2011), that college has been overemphasized and offers a false solution, so we should pare back college attendance.

Draut herself was a working-class beneficiary of higher education: the daughter of a steelworker, she went to a public university near home in Ohio, which sent her on her way to a job in advertising, then with Planned Parenthood, and since 2001 with Demos, a progressive think tank, where she started as a researcher and is currently a vice president.

Demos was founded in the 1990s as a counterweight to the many conservative think tanks, and it has produced reports such as “The Great Cost Shift,” about the draining of public support for higher education, and “The College Compact,” about enhancing public support. Draut first worked on studies of credit-card and student loan debt, which spurred her earlier exposé, Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Doubleday, 2006).

She learned a lesson from the battle over credit cards. In seeking reform, as she recalled in an interview with me, “there’s a beltway mentality, ‘Well, that’s never going to happen; we’re never going to regulate the credit-card companies.’” But she proudly attended the 2009 signing of the Credit Card Act, which regulates rates and fees and has helped those in debt. As she quipped, “I got the last laugh on that one,” and she sees the same possibility for higher education: “Debt-free college is now a real idea and part of the political debate.”

That’s one salutary reminder we can take from Draut: it might be a long road, but good ideas that seem unrealistic at one moment can win their day. In academic scholarship, we typically focus on conceptual problems, commenting on one and moving onto the next, and in fact we are continually looking for what’s new or next. But in politics, change sometimes seems glacial, and one has to be dogged. It’s useful to keep in mind that massive student debt is only a recent development, arising since the 1980s, and 10 years ago, the idea of abolishing it or enacting free public higher education were considered pie-in-the-sky proposals. But they’re on the agenda now, and we have to keep working to accrue the data, build the narratives and devise policies that aim toward more equality.


Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English and of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His most recent book is How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University (Fordham University Press, 2014).


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