Social Class and Higher Education

A rich child is 45 percent more likely to earn a four-year college degree than a poor one.


Most of the discussion of education and social inequality in America is over the advantages well off families have at getting their children into elite schools that perpetuate their advantage. Given the degree to which those schools control access to some of the most prestigious and financially rewarding careers, that’s a real issue. But it’s one that by definition impacts only a fraction of one percent of the population. Even if every seat to the top ten universities in the land were awarded solely on the basis of merit, the other 99-plus percent of students would go on to other schools or no school at all.

A long NYT feature, “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall,” focuses on the obstacles that smart kids from impoverished backgrounds have in getting ahead through higher education. It’s extremely anecdotal, focusing on three girls from a Galveston, Texas high school, but points to larger trends.

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality. Not one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.

While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes. Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools. And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60 percent in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.

In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.

“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”

In the case of the well-off preserving their children’s place in the upper tier, it’s a function of having eh means, know-how, and connections. In the case of the poverty trap, the problem is a self-perpetuating cycle wherein the markers of failure passed on.

Melissa also wanted to get off the island — and more immediately out of her house. “When I was about 7, my mom began dating and hanging around a bunch of drunks,” she wrote on the Upward Bound application. For her mother, addiction to painkillers and severe depression followed. Her grandparents offered her one refuge, and school offered another.

“I like to learn — I’m weird,” she said.

By eighth grade, Melissa was at the top of her class and sampling a course at a private high school. She yearned to apply there but swore the opposite to her mother and grandparents. Protecting families from their own ambition is a skill many poor students learn. “I knew we didn’t have the money,” Melissa said. “I felt like I had no right to ask.”

Of course, this barrier exists even for kids in the lower middle class. My family couldn’t have afforded to send me to private school, either. But the local school was merely mediocre, not lousy. And I had a reasonably stable home life, with both of my parents under one roof.

Melissa now marvels at what a good parent her mother has become to her younger brother after she stopped drinking and was treated for her depression. But when she returned from the high school trip to Chicago, the conflicts grew so intense that Miss G. took her in one night. “I really put her through a lot,” said Melissa’s mother, Pam Craft. “Everything she did, she did on her own — I’m so proud of her.” Miss G.’s notes variously observed that “there are limited groceries,” “student is overwhelmed” and “she’s basically raising herself.”

While faulting her mother’s choices in men, Melissa made a troubling choice of her own with her ambitionless boyfriend. Among the many ways he let her down was getting another girl pregnant. Yet as many times as they broke up, they got back together again. “He is going to bring her down,” Miss G. warned.

Despite the turmoil, Melissa earned “commended” marks, the highest level, on half her state skills tests, edited the yearbook and published two opinion articles in the Galveston newspaper, one of them about her brother’s struggle with autism. Working three jobs, she missed so much school that she nearly failed to graduate, but she still finished in the top quarter of her class. It was never clear which would prevail — her habit of courting disaster or her talent for narrow escapes.

Obviously, the children of upper middle class and even wealthy parents make these kinds of mistakes. But they’re less likely to do so. More importantly, their parents are in a position to drastically mitigate the consequences.

Outside school, Angelica’s life revolved around her boyfriend, Fred Weaver, who was three years older and drove a yellow Sting Ray. Fred was devoted — too devoted, Mrs. Lady thought, and she warned Angelica not to let the relationship keep her from going to college. Fred’s father owned a local furniture store, and everyone could see that Fred’s dream was to run it with Angelica at his side.

Senior year raced by, with Miss G. doing her best to steer frightened and distracted students though the college selection process. Despite all the campus visits, choices were made without the intense supervision that many affluent students enjoy. Bianca, anchored to the island by family and an older boyfriend, chose community college. Melissa picked Texas State in San Marcos because “the application was easiest.”

Angelica had thought of little beyond Northwestern and was crestfallen when she was rejected. She had sent a last-minute application to a school in Atlanta that had e-mailed her. Only after getting in did she discover that she had achieved something special.

Emory cost nearly $50,000 that year, but it was one of a small tier of top schools that promised to meet the financial needs of any student good enough to be admitted. It had even started a program to relieve the neediest students of high debt burdens. “No one should have to give up their goals and dreams because financial challenges stand in the way,” its Web site says.

In many ways, this mirrors my own experiences and many of my first-generation-college peers. My parents had no insights into the college process and my high school guidance counselors, while friendly, had no real clue. Few of the graduates went on to college and most who did went on the the local teaching college; the best tended to go to Alabama or Auburn. Even though Georgia was right next door, I don’t know that I knew Emory existed when I was a high school junior. And that was a decade before the World Wide Web came along, so the only way to research schools was the local library and/or mailing away for catalogs. Further, while I didn’t decide which schools to apply to based on “which application was easiest,” I didn’t bother to apply to schools with rigorous application processes that were obviously too expensive for me to attend.

Compared to these girls, though, I had the advantages that come from family stability and parental judgment. High school boys are probably less likely to make college decisions based on their girlfriends than vice versa, anyway. But, had I been a girl, there’s no way in hell I’d have been dating a 20-something-year old boy; my parents simply wouldn’t have allowed it.

Further—and this is something I think most middle aged and older folks haven’t internalized—college is radically more expensive now than it was when I was an undergrad. When I transferred to Jacksonville State in 1986, full time tuition was $400 a semester for in-state students. In today’s dollars, that’s $840.22. For the 2012-2013 academic year, it’s $265 per credit hour; that’s $4770 for an 18-hour semester (and I took 21 or more since it was the same price, regardless). In constant dollars, then, it’s nearly six times as expensive to get an undergraduate degree from a no-name regional college than it used to be. Which means the “work your way through school like I did” (and I did) plan isn’t practical.*

Ultimately, then, the combination of money, parental time and attention, and related environmental considerations matter more than ever:

Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Professor Reardon, the Stanford sociologist, examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed.

While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts.

“The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger,” Professor Reardon said.

One explanation is simply that the rich have clearly gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much.

But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry.

Certainly as the payoff to education has grown — college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead — affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Professor Duncan and Prof. Richard Murnane of Harvard.

In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined. Miss G. said there is a reason the triplets relied so heavily on boyfriends: “Their fathers weren’t there.”

And, without that guidance dumb choices and general immaturity are not tend to be more prevalent but are more costly.

Just before her senior year, Melissa planned a trip to celebrate her 21st birthday. Preparing to leave, she discovered her money was missing. Only one person had her bank code. After finishing Job Corps, her boyfriend was jobless once again and acting odd — as if he were using drugs.

No one but Melissa was surprised. Although she returned the engagement ring, she could not return the $4,000 in credit card debt he had promised to help pay. With her finances and emotions in disarray, she started her senior year so depressed she hung up black curtains so she could sleep all day. She skipped class, doubled her work hours, and failed nearly every course.

“I started partying, and I was working all the time because I had this debt,” she said.

If the speed of her decline stands out, so does her lack of a safety net. It is easy to imagine a more affluent family stepping in with money or other support. Miss G. sent her the names of some campus therapists but Melissa did not call. She waited for an internal bungee cord to break the fall. She came within one F of losing her financial aid, then aced last summer’s classes.

She is now a fifth-year senior, on track to graduate next summer, and her new boyfriend is studying to be an engineer. At home, she had a way of finding the wrong people. “I haven’t found any wrong people out here,” she said.

With more than $44,000 in loans, she can expect to pay $250 a month for the next quarter century, on top of whatever she may borrow for graduate school. She hides the notices in a drawer and harbors no regrets. “Education — you can’t put a price on it,” she said. “No matter what happens in your life, they can’t take your education away.”

Then there’s this:

Among the perils that low-income students face is “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend.

“The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate,” said Mr. Chingos, the Brookings researcher. “There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”

I wound up under-matching as an undergraduate for financial reasons and under-matching, big time, for graduate school simply because I didn’t know better. In my case, I didn’t need much of a support system at school and I got excellent instruction and have no regrets about the educational experience itself. Nor am I sure that Chingos’ analysis applies across the board. The community college where I taught was obsessed with helping students who frankly weren’t college material make it, whereas Alabama took a sink-or-swim approach to undergrads.

And then there’s the “don’t get above your raisin'” phenomenon, which is apparently not confined to the rural South:

[Bianca’s] grandfather’s cancer, and chemotherapy treatments, offered more reasons to stay. She had lived with him since her father had died. Leaving felt like betrayal. “I thought it was more important to be at home than to be selfish and be at school,” she said.

The idea that education can be “selfish” — a belief largely alien among the upper-middle class — is one poor students often confront, even if it remains unspoken. “Family is such a priority, especially when you’re a Hispanic female,” Miss G. said. “You’re afraid you’re going to hear, ‘You’re leaving us, you think you’re better.’ ”

There’s a lot more to the story and, again, it’s mostly anecdotal. The bottom line seems to be that, aside from money constantly being an issue for poor students, even if they’re getting financial aid, the biggest issue is that they’re simply not prepared to do things that kids from a middle class background would take for granted: filling out the right forms, asking the right questions, communicating conflicts to professors and advisors, and the like. Even being first generation college, I either understood those things intuitively or managed to figure them out soon enough.

*UPDATE: Alan Jacobs, who graduated from Alabama in 1980 and got his PhD from UVA in 1987, makes this point more vividly.

I was one of those “low-income students” once. Not poor — we always had plenty to eat and toys at Christmas and decent if shabby cars to get around in — but not comfortably middle-class either. We lived primarily off my mother’s income, and women didn’t get paid a lot in those days. (My father was in prison for much of my childhood and inconsistently employed when he was home.) I doubt that my parents could have saved money to send me to college if they had wanted to, but they didn’t want to: they saw no value in college education.


 If I didn’t pay cash money for my education I wasn’t going to get one. So that’s what I did. And here’s the key point: I could. UAB wasn’t a great school, in the humanities anyway, but it wasn’t a bad one at all — my teachers were all competent and in some cases excellent — and the tuition was low enough that even a part-time receiving clerk could write out a quarterly check to cover it.

My situation wasn’t ideal: working that much, I struggled to keep up with my studies. Eventually I decided I wanted to take my education more seriously and transferred to THE University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, where the History and English departments were much better, and I cut back on work. But I only could do this after convincing my parents, finally, to sign those student loan forms.

In the end, I graduated with some debt, but it was manageable. And while as an academic I’ve never made much money — certainly not as much as I would have if I had gone into the law, the only other option I ever seriously considered — I’ve been able to provide a better life for my son than my parents were able to provide for me.

America is supposed to be about, in some fundamental way, just that possibility. But as the NYT story shows, the costs of higher education are making experiences like mine effectively impossible for young people who grow up today in the economic class I come from. And that’s really, really sad.

We’ve discussed the reasons for the skyrocketing cost of higher ed in previous posts but the key factor is simply that tuition at state colleges and universities isn’t backstopped by taxpayers like it used to be. Everything from health care to prisons is crowding out higher education funding in state budgets, so the costs are being passed on to the students. That’s probably reasonable in the case of those whose families can afford it. But it creates a tremendous barrier that smart kids from families without means simply didn’t have when Alan and I were coming through the system.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Like any NYT article you have to wait a while (in this particular case the 7th graf) before the first true money quote and the attendant layers upon layers of sheer irony:

    The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed.

    The only people who actually would be “surprised” about that are the putative experts (airheaded liberals, actually) ensconced in the media-academe cocoon.

    Race preferences don’t work. Haven’t worked. Never will work. And like every left-wing policy they have pretty much the exact opposite of their intended effect. Rent control = higher rents. Gun control = higher rates of gun violence. Rehabilitation in lieu of punishment = higher recidivism rates. Higher minimum wages = lower employment. Extended unemployment benefits = longer unemployment. Equal opportunity housing = greater gentrification of neighborhoods. “Affirmative action” in education = greater race and class-based dichotomies in education. Sun rises in east.

    Ultimately even the media-academe cabal largely has figured out that poverty is the root cause of societal ills. Which adds to the ghastly irony of it all, since the primary reason why poverty still is so rampant in this country is the never-ending quagmire of the “war on poverty.”

    If we took concrete steps actually to reduce poverty, rather than to perpetuate it, over time the various race and class-based discrepancies in education, along with incomes, employment, etc., substantially would narrow. But that would entail weaning the public off the welfare state. Tightening AFDC requirements with an eye ultimately towards eliminating the program. Weaning able-bodied young people off Medicaid. Improving K-12 education, which would entail merit based compensation, greater numbers of school vouchers and charter schools, and loosening up firing rules for bad teachers.

    For obvious reasons we should not hold our collective breath.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: The problem with all that is that the black-white performance gap has been steadily decreasing. Middle and upper middle class blacks are doing relatively well. It’s poor kids–disproportionately black and Hispanic, yes, but controlled for race–that are struggling.

  3. Stan says:

    My story is similar to JJ’s. I had parents who were prosperous by the time I was in high school but who had been deprived of a college education. My parents never discussed college with us, but it was somehow understood that my brothers and I would go to college and that my parents would foot the bill. My brothers and I were born on third base, and we all knew we hadn’t hit triples.

    After finishing graduate school, I spent my professional life as an academic at a major public research university. During a stint as a member of my college’s disciplinary committee, I saw the situations described in the NYTimes article over and over. The average family income of our undergraduates was well over $100,000 when I retired in 2003, but we had many students from modest backgrounds. Their scholarship help, while generous, required them to put in long hours of work as waiters, clerks, and similar jobs to make ends meet. My college invested big bucks in tutoring and counseling, but the pressure was still too much for many students. It broke my heart to hear their stories.

    Everybody who reads this blog knows of America’s increasing income and wealth inequality and of the contempt felt by many in our prosperous classes toward “lucky duckies”, people too poor to pay federal income tax. Because of the gradual disappearance of education as a leveler, as described in the Times article, and the attitude displayed by Governor Romney in his 47% speech and felt by many members of his party, I see us developing into a two-class society. It’s incredibly sad for a country that started out with such high ideals.

  4. Stan says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: You don’t know what you’re talking about. My colleagues and I all knew how tough it was for poor kids to get through college. As noted in my post, nothing in the Times article is a surprise to anybody with university experience.

    As far as your solutions go, don’t the poor suffer enough already? Is it really necessary for them to suffer more? Don’t you understand that people respond better to hope than fear?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ll follow suit and identify myself in educational and class terms. My parents were both the first people in their respective families to go to school past sixth grade. Both graduated from high school, college, and had advanced degrees (my dad was a lawyer, my mom had a masters in education). I graduated from college and went on to grad school. Like my parents, I’m upper middle class.

    I think the emphasis on higher education is a charade, a hoax, a failure to recognize the real problems. Its net effect is to preserve social distinctions rather than to level them. The world champion for higher education is Canada with over 50% of the population. That seems about the max. We’re just under 50%. That seems to be the reality. About 50% of the population has the ability to make use of higher education and about 10% has the ability to pursue advanced degrees.

    What the other half of the population needs to be able to do is readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmetic. We’re failing them. Rather than pushing for higher education we should be working on the reasons for that failure. Managers of Jiffy Marts don’t need graduate degrees.

    That it’s possible for a country with an advanced economy to prosper without everybody getting a college degree take Germany as an example. Their level of higher education is much lower than ours. People learn to read, write, and figure and OJT provides whatever else they need with an apprentice system for many jobs.

    We should also recognize that we will need a diverse economy for the foreseeable future. We need jobs that a broader base of our population can do. That means more mining, lumbering, oil and gas production, and manufacturing rather than less. Being a country divided between lawyers and docs on the one hand and sales clerks on the other is not a viable future for us.

  6. john personna says:

    This is why I’ve been going on about “education hackers” and tech driven change, targeting the low end, for years and years.

    To cut to the chase, I think that next generation MOOC engines and community colleges will triumph.

    They both deliver high ROI for the student.

  7. john personna says:

    Related, Joi Ito is currently heading MIT’s Media Lab. He has a trends 2013 article:

    “It has always been my opinion that ‘education’ is something people do to you, whereas ‘learning’ is something you do for yourself,” he says. “Consequently, the only thing I learned in school was typing. In the old days, people like me who don’t have college degrees had a hard time thriving in society. But today, the ability to learn on your own or from your peers has become really easy. I think this change is leading to a fundamental disruption in education. Independent and lifelong learning are really starting to peak – there is an inflection point coming around how people learn.”

    Some expressed skepticism when I said similar here last year, but that was before the “year of the MOOC.”

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    Following up on john personna’s comments above, we’ve now had three consecutive administrations that preached that higher education was the key to a bright economic future for the United States. Every large state has at least one flagging state college or university. Why don’t the large states close these failing institutions, pool their resources, and introduce an online program at low or no cost that will lead to, at the very least, an associates degree?

  9. john personna says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    We are on the same page on this one. Your Jiffy Mart manager needs an AA in Business Administration, and cheaply.

  10. george says:

    @john personna:

    Or Mark Twain’s “I never let school interfere with my education.”

    The problem is acreditation to get a job – you could learn much of what you need for the equivalency of say a civil engineering job without stepping into a university (we’ll ignore labs for now, which are actually pretty important hands on experience for many fields such as engineering, and I’d guess medicine, dentistry, chemistry, physics etc). But without some way of passing standardized tests its going to be hard to get hired, simply because if you’re looking at a stack of 100 resumee’s for an entry level engineering position, the thought of testing each one for actual knowledge is pretty mind numbing,and you tend to go with the one’s with the BEng’s, even if its possible that some without have as much or better knowledge.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    It’s a matter of market economics. The price to attend both public universities and liberal arts colleges has outstripped middle class ability to afford the cost. I was able to work summers to put myself through the University of California – that is not possible today. Add to that we have squandered the wealth created in successive economic booms rather than reinvest in our public university system and you end up where we are today.

  12. sam says:

    Then there’s this problem: Skills Don’t Pay the Bills:

    Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.

    The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages.

    In a recent study, the Boston Consulting Group noted that, outside a few small cities that rely on the oil industry, there weren’t many places where manufacturing wages were going up and employers still couldn’t find enough workers. “Trying to hire high-skilled workers at rock-bottom rates,” the Boston Group study asserted, “is not a skills gap.” The study’s conclusion, however, was scarier. Many skilled workers have simply chosen to apply their skills elsewhere rather than work for less, and few young people choose to invest in training for jobs that pay fast-food wages. As a result, the United States may soon have a hard time competing in the global economy. The average age of a highly skilled factory worker in the U.S. is now 56. “That’s average,” says Hal Sirkin, the lead author of the study. “That means there’s a lot who are in their 60s. They’re going to retire soon.” And there are not enough trainees in the pipeline, he said, to replace them.

    You don’t get what you’re not prepared to pay for. See also, Three million open jobs in U.S., but who’s qualified?

  13. Peter says:

    Of the three young women profiled in the article only one, Angelica, is a true “poster child” for the failings of our educational system, having incurred so much debt without a degree. And even she is better off than many actual graduates in that she has a steady albeit unremarkable job. Bianca got her community college degree without significant debt, works at a couple of jobs, and can always get her 4-year degree at some point in the future. Melissa, the only one of the three ineligible for affirmative action privileges, went through some tough times but is now on track to graduate with a relatively modest debt burden.

    It would have been easy for the Times to have found people who are far worse-off to profile. For example, law school graduates with 120K in debt and no job hopes whatsoever.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    One of the missed points of the story if that many poor people attend college without understanding what it takes to get to their dreams (speech Pathology requires a masters degrees and underpays because so many of the pathologist work part time. Child Psychologist is going to require a PhD and a fellowship. Both career paths are going to require high GPAs.

    As was pointed out above, counselors do a pathetic job of really advising poor students. Poor students, many times, do not realize the path that needs to be followed for specific career paths. They would have been better off aiming for a degree that does not require graduate school such as accounting, law enforcement, or engineering technology. They would have been better pursing ROTC scholarships so that they had a job lined up when they graduate and would have been around other middle class students.

  15. john personna says:


    I would still advise a kid who can afford college to get it. It works as signalling, in part for ancient reasons, and in part because certification for on-line education is in its infancy.

    That is the advice most of us give in the programming forums. The advice we give for people who can’t or won’t go, is to put together a portfolio. One can demonstrate accomplishment in other ways. It isn’t as easy as just flashing a degree though.

    In terms of trend spotting and emerging trends though, I’d say that we are verging on workable systems for certification. Perhaps junior colleges can reach higher, by certifying work completed “at” much more prestigious schools. Orange Coast College (a choice of surfers and slacker sons of the rich) could proctor your exam in MIT AI 234 or whatever.

  16. superdestroyer says:


    I different POV of getting out of poverty.

    The first point is

    Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours

    and is advice that all three of the women should have followed along with

    Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.

  17. superdestroyer says:

    Another advise item that the middle class should be aware of it that what you major in and where you go matters more than ever before. A Yale graduate can afford to have a degree in art history because getting in to Yale demonstrates talent. Someone at Texas State-San Marcos needs to major is something that provides a credential such as nursing, education, criminal justice, engineering, etc. Those degrees can get a poor person into a middle class track and a career track without unpaid internships, graduate degrees, foreign travel, or any of the other resume builders of the wealthy.

  18. john personna says:

    BTW, the MOOC provider Coursera is offering free courses. Their first toe-dip for generating income has been to let employers mine student results. IOW, you take a bunch of free course, and at some point you might get an inquiry from an employer.

    Welcome to our Brave New World.

  19. Peter says:

    Education Realist’s advice all sounds very good, I’m sure it’s based on his actual observations, yet the unfortunate part is that he’s very clear about the benefits that affirmative action confers. In other words, if you’re not a minority, you’re going to be held to higher standards and will have a reduced chance of success.

  20. Murray says:

    Who would have thought that it makes it easier if your parents can afford to foot the bill?

  21. superdestroyer says:


    The NY Times story provides clear evidence that affirmative action helps non-whites. Angelica was admitted to Emory with an SAT score that is more than 100 points below the average student at Emory. I doubt if a white male with a 1240 SAT while attending a public school would have been admitted to Emory. However, Angelica was probably not rewards for being Hispanic in Texas due the top 10% rule that she would have benefitted from attending a private university.

    However, Angelica should have probably attended Texas Tech where she would have been above average and receive a good financial aid package instead of borrowing money to attend Emory where Angelica was clearly below average.

  22. Tyrell says:

    @James Joyner: Some of the best schools in the country are inner city schools. Schools that have given a lot of authority back to the principals and teachers to deal with discipline issues, expect parents to be accountable, and stress excellence, details, and preparation in everything instead of frills, fad educational theories/programs (Common “Core”). Top down management from Washington politicians and university based bureaucrats is the biggest problem with education. Take a look at what Steve Perry is doing and saying.
    I might also add that skilled trade/technical careers should not be discounted: think how much you will have to pay someone to fix your heating system – if and when they can get out ($80 just to get them out and look at it).

  23. JKB says:

    Well first off, poor students need to acknowledge their situation. That means realizing that college should provide them with employable knowledge and skills. That means not studying the economically useless majors. I had to do it back in 1980. The economy sucked so you went into STEM, accounting or business – political science, philosophy, English, those were majors for those who weren’t hard up for money. Now, as it turned out, the economy turned and jobs could be found by those in the softer side of the university. Perhaps it will again? But for the softer side, you have to realize that after “being educated” you’ll have to find something of use to others to do if you want to get paid. You’ll probably never access your “education” again in a formal manner unless you stay on the academic track, which runs into a bog right now.

    That is not to say the being “educated” in the way the Liberal Arts proclaim even as they no longer provide isn’t good, it is just when you are poor, you must be practical and go for skills that provide a benefit to others for which they’ll pay you to provide.

  24. john personna says:


    Sounds like a job for an AA, this time in HVAC

    (Ah Community, such a wonderful show, with John Goodman as king of HVAC.)

  25. JKB says:

    I think we should consider that the public universities have betrayed their mandate. Their purpose was to provide advanced education but they like all bureaucracies tried to build and empire. They were then sucked into the luxury education competition. They spend enormous sums to build luxury student accommodations and stadiums to the detriment of actually providing an affordable education. And I will concede that big time sports attracts alumni money.

    But consider, if the public universities had stayed true to their purpose, they would provide first-class academics with spartan accommodations. Every decision based on how it impacted academics. Living conditions set up to facilitate study not resort living.

    Now I know some will argue that then the public universities can’t compete. Well, they really shouldn’t be competing with the private colleges, they should be providing an affordable education as a public good, not 4 years of vacation on the taxpayer.

  26. jukeboxgrad says:

    I think there’s an important point that’s being overlooked in the article and the comments.

    When lack of money keeps a poor, smart person out of college, the loser is not just that person. We all lose, because their intellectual capital is being wasted. When we run our society this way, we end up being less competitive against other societies that place a priority on helping everyone reach their full potential, even if they are born poor.

    This relates to what Stiglitz and Tocqueville said about “self-interest properly understood” (link):

    … looking out for the other guy isn’t just good for the soul—it’s good for business. The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.

  27. Stan says:

    @JKB: “…4 years of vacation on the taxpayer” ??? First of all, it isn’t a vacation. College is hard work.

    Regarding funding, at my (public) university the percentage of the university’s budget provided by the state has dropped from over 50% in the 60’s to less than 20% a few years ago. The university has responded by requiring junior faculty in the sciences and medicine to bring in loads of cash as a requirement for tenure, and, of course, by increasing tuition and room and board. To put it bluntly, my university has been essentially privatized. I think this is a pretty common pattern.

  28. Andre Kenji says:

    @john personna:

    To cut to the chase, I think that next generation MOOC engines and community colleges will triumph.

    Not necessary. Part of the problem of education technology is that resources like MOOCs gives ample tools that can be used by people that are already interested in learning. Asians are avid consumers of English language podcasts, for instance, because there is a large tradition of studying by yourself in Asia. On the other hand, people that are not interested in learning(The big challenge for teachers in schools) will see a smaller advantage from technology.

    I think that creates a even bigger disparity.

  29. Andre Kenji says:

    Countries that have a tradition of providing apprenticeships instead of increasing the number of college graduates(Germany, Japan, Singapore, Netherlands, Finland, Austria) have a low unemployment rate while countries that simply increases the number of college graduates have high unemployment rate(US, Spain, Italy, France,etc).

    That´s not a coincidence.

  30. Peter says:

    One thing about the Times article that somewhat confuses me: from the way it describes Galveston the city sounds like it’s a few steps below Sodom and Gomorrah, yet I had thought it was a fairly upscale place.

  31. john personna says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    It goes both ways. I’ve helped a student in Bangladesh with MOOC homework, and I’ve watched electrical engineering lectures out of India.

    But for jobs which are in the US, I think that MOOCs and Community Colleges will be the growth areas. It is hard for a student in Asia to fix Tyrell’s HVAC.

  32. James H says:

    In the case of the well-off preserving their children’s place in the upper tier, it’s a function of having eh means, know-how, and connections

    Damn those Canadians!

  33. wr says:

    @JKB: “That is not to say the being “educated” in the way the Liberal Arts proclaim even as they no longer provide isn’t good, it is just when you are poor, you must be practical and go for skills that provide a benefit to others for which they’ll pay you to provide”

    Shorter JKB: The rich can do things they love. The poor must do whatever pleases their overlords.

  34. wr says:

    @JKB: Maybe if right wing scumbags stopped defunding state schools to shovel more obscene tax breaks to billionaires, those schools wouldn’t have to compete with private schools.

  35. Andre Kenji says:

    @john personna: Yes, but Poor Asians are not the problem of achievement gap, at least in the US.

  36. superdestroyer says:


    Galveston Ball (and yes, that is the way to refer to high schools in Texas) is only 26% white and 44% Hispanic. A school that is 50% free lunch is not a very good school these days. A rich person who lives in Galveston either does not have children or send their children to private schools.

  37. superdestroyer says:


    Of course there is actually little correlation between spending and educational performance. The District of Columbia schools receive much higher per student funding (about $5K per student more) than the surrounding suburbs of Arlington, Fairfax, and Montgomery counties. Yet, those three counties outperform the DC public schools. How much more would the government have to spend to bring nonperforming schools up to the level of the suburban white schools and would it even be legal to fund the inner city schools at a much higher levels than the suburban schools?

  38. JKB says:


    But what would be the percentage of the budget from the taxpayers if the non-academic facilities had been kept at a level of luxury commiserate with that of the 1960s?

    Just pointing out that your university doesn’t receive the same level of funding says nothing. The question is, how much of the costs associated with actually educating does it cover as opposed to fancy student unions and stadiums.

  39. JKB says:

    @wr: Shorter JKB: The rich can do things they love. The poor must do whatever pleases their overlords.

    Reality is a bitch. But yes, if you do not have money to pay your living expenses, you must find a way to make that money. The way you make money is to provide some goods or services that others are willing to pay money to receive.

    Just in case you don’t realize it, the rich can afford to spend their time doing things that bring them no positive economic return. The poor must either trade their time and effort for positive economic return or they must marry into the rich, trust fund types.

    and it isn’t “whatever pleases their overlords” but rather whatever they can exchange with others to their mutual benefit. As we’ve often seen “whatever pleases their overlords”, i.e., government is often unprofitable and does not lead to prosperity for the poor or society.

  40. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: We’re talking about university funding, not middle schools. Try to keep up.

  41. wr says:

    @JKB: Once again, you fight for a nation divided into plantation owners and serfs. This to you, somehow, means freedom and equality.

  42. Janis Gore says:

    @JKB: I don’t know. I married rich, and pleased my overlord, and did pretty well okay out of the whole experience.

  43. Janis Gore says:

    But going back over the past again — in ’73, when I applied to Reed College in OR (one of the 6 most selective schools in the nation at the time) tuition, room and board ran about $3,000 a year.

    It’s about $40,000 now.

  44. Janis Gore says:

    Or ’74. Whatever.

  45. Stan says:

    @JKB: I agree with you in part. The dorms are more comfortable to live in than when I went to college and the football stadium is indeed a thing of beauty, befitting the fact that the athletic director is the highest paid official at the university. But room and board fees are separate from tuition and the athletic department is self-supporting, so the answer to your question about how tuition has been affected by all this luxury is that it hasn’t been affected at all. Increases of tuition are due to lower state funding and higher compensation for faculty and administration.

  46. wr says:

    @Stan: “Increases of tuition are due to lower state funding and higher compensation for faculty and administration. ”

    True, except that the higher compensation is almost entirely for administration, and a little for star names faculty (who generally do nothing but stick their names on the university’s mastead). Faculty salaries are hardly skyrocketing, and more and more teaching is being shoveled onto poorly compensated adjuncts, who are hired on a temporary basis as tenure-track jobs become increasingly scarce.

    A lot of the universities’ problems are external, but the desire to emulate the corporate model, with a hugely paid set of top execs and increasingly poor pay among the workers, is entirely their own doing.

  47. superdestroyer says:


    But how would giving more money to public universities help students who have bad boy friends, unsupportive families, and inadequate counselling. I always found that many students worked to maintain a certain lifestyle rather than just pay tuition. College students who have money to party in Orlando, have more than enough money to be real students.

  48. superdestroyer says:

    @Janis Gore:

    tuition and fees alone run around $40K. The top schools all have the same list price. Another way to look at schools is that any school that would give a student an academic scholarhsip is probably an academic mismatch for the student.

  49. Peter says:

    Angelica’s situation may not be as dire as it first seems. Her boyfriend’s father owns the furniture store in which she works, so perhaps over time she might move up into a managerial or supervisory role. It’s even possible that if she and her boyfriend get married, that they may end up owning or running the store after Dad retires.

  50. steve says:

    Sounds like undergrad schools, at least the elite ones, are more like the Ivy League med school I attended. Class schedules were altered to accommodate the rich kids who wanted to all take vacations together. Made it more difficult for the kids like myself who were working full time and had less flexibility. It must be awkward for those few non wealthy kids who manage to make it into those top schools.


  51. JKB says:


    Wait, room and board are a cost of college and thus an expense for the student.

    I think you may find that the football program is self supporting but not the rest of the department. In addition, where did the capital cost for the stadium come from? How is the bond/interest payments being paid?

    But let’s look at tuition and state funding. I hear there are PhDs by the dozen looking for work so the pay should be going down. And it seems university presidents make more than all but the highest paid corporate CEOs. And then all those admin types could be let go. Does a state college really need recruiters? Or the state system could shut down campuses or focus campuses rather than trying to all to everyone. Say only Liberal arts at one, Engineering and STEM at another, etc. And the “general ed” requirement isn’t an obstacle since now much better liberal arts courses via MOOCs is available for the STEM student rather than the propaganda most such courses are today. The reverse isn’t really required since their is no requirement for Liberal Arts students to take “general ed” in useful subjects.

    But the question is, if we wish to permit the shifting of social class via college education, then the poorer students should be able to get a good education at a good price at state schools even if they must forego the luxury items offered by private schools.

  52. Stan says:

    @JKB: What’s happening in university tuition is symptomatic of a general tendency in American life: the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. My university estimates that the two semester cost (tuition, room and board, etc.) for out of state upper division students is $54,724. This is outrageous, but the university gets away with it because Harvard, Yale, and Princeton cost even more. As I said earlier, we have a two-class society.

  53. Peter says:

    If it weren’t for the federal student loan program, colleges would never have been able to raise their prices so much.

  54. wr says:

    @superdestroyer: I don’t know, Superdestroyer. I guess we should stop funding higher education since all that government money can’t solve every one of every student’s problems. In fact, since there are some people who get food stamps but still have trouble paying the rent, we should stop that program, too.

  55. wr says:

    @JKB: “But the question is, if we wish to permit the shifting of social class via college education, then the poorer students should be able to get a good education at a good price at state schools even if they must forego the luxury items offered by private schools. ”

    Absolutely. We must always maintain a two-track system, so that the poor, even if we allow them enough education to serve our needs, will always know that they are inferior to the rich in every way.

  56. jukeboxgrad says:

    if we wish to permit the shifting of social class

    Wow, so “the shifting of social class” is something that may or may not be desirable to “permit?” These words say so much. They are an inadvertently vivid illustration of the underlying attitude: dividing the world into Uppers and Lowers is an inherently proper system, and if any of the latter want to jump the wall, first the former need to consider if it’s something they “wish to permit.” That is, you better know your place, and don’t step out of line without ‘permission.’

  57. superdestroyer says:


    Actually, what state universitites should do is use quantitative analysis to determine which students are the most likely to graduate and which are least likely to graduate. If a school like Galveston Ball generally produces college drop outs, then maybe the state universities should stop admitting Ball graduates right out of high school.

    Also, universities could determine the early signs that a student will not success and put them on probation much earlier than is now done. Of course, a university would have to go back to checking roll and monitoring grades rather than waiting for final grades to determine how a student is going.

  58. Isma says:

    The poor should be assisted to get higher education. It is the easiest way to beat the york of poverty which is a curse.

  59. Janis Gore says:

    40 years ago I could work at minimum wage during the summers only and pay a good bit toward my education. I saved $700 working as a cashier in a hardware store the summer before I went to Reed the first time. What does $700 mean when costs are what they are?

    (H. Ross Perot bought hardware at that store. Apparently did some of his own plumbing repairs at the time.)

    Good luck, young’uns.

  60. JKB says:

    @wr: We must always maintain a two-track system

    I have presented a suggestion that state schools get back to their public mission to provide affordable education by cutting out the luxury features and concentrate on providing a solid education with adequate but spartan accommodations. You seem upset that some, being without a rich father, the poor might have to forego the jacuzzi in the dorm to get an education.

    Surely, you’ll agree the goal here is to confer an education and all the extra is a distraction.
    And that if our goal is to provide educational opportunity then one that was solely focused on education would be as, if not more, acceptable than one that included a lot of luxury recreation? The tragedy is that many poor students are being lured into economically-useless majors only to discover they’ve thousands in student loans to pay back but have no useful skills. Economically-useless majors are the domain of the wealthy student or, in the past, one seeking the MRS degree since poor students need marketable skills to improve their life.

  61. Janis Gore says:

    My damn MRS degree didn’t come cheap.

    I had to learn how to lay floors, paint and finish cabinetry, garden, do automobile maintenance, self-rent a condo and deal with multinationals.

    Son, where you come from, Mamou?

  62. JKB says:

    @Janis Gore: My damn MRS degree didn’t come cheap.

    But in the context of the university, if you aren’t going to have to eat off your education, you can choose majors that provide little physical sustenance outside college.

    For those students who hope their degree will impact their ability to provide for their daily nut, they must pursue majors that have economic-value off campus.

  63. Janis Gore says:

    Granted. And frequently, current schooling won’t do a damned thing to help them, and I include business majors in that.

  64. Gustopher says:

    A lot of jobs that shouldn’t require a degree do, in an effort to quickly reduce the pool of candidates to something manageable for recruiters and hr. It often doesn’t matter what the degree is in — even Art History will give you a leg up. The effect of this is to reduce the paths out of poverty.

    There’s no grand conspiracy here — it’s just a lot of individual people and companies trying to make their lives easier. Someone who can sit in place long enough to get a degree in something is likely to be able to do the random job, so it’s a good signal.

    The effects are devastating to society, however.

    Add to that cutting the funding of public universities (thanks, right wing tax haters!) so college is much more expensive, and funding of public education through property tax so the students who need the most help have the least resources, and I would say that poor kids are pretty screwed.

  65. george says:


    The NY Times story provides clear evidence that affirmative action helps non-whites.

    Like the Chinese for instance? I don’t think whites are the worst off in the affirmative action sweepstakes.

  66. superdestroyer says:


    Asians are overrepresented at Tier one universities. Whites are represented at the same level that they are in the population/ I think Asians are not as impacted as much as middle class and poor whites. Jennifer Gratz was white and from a blue collar family when the State of Michigan was violating her civil rights (as determined by the Supreme Court). What is odd is even when higher education is nailed in court for discrimination, they will keep on doing it.

  67. george says:


    Asians are overrepresented at Tier one universities. Whites are represented at the same level that they are in the population/ I think Asians are not as impacted as much as middle class and poor whites.

    At the risk of dragging on this tangeant, if you Google you’ll notice that Asians on average need a SAT score about 100 higher than whites to get into tier one universities. Isn’t that the argument against blacks – that they get into these universities with lower SAT score than whites?

    Personally, I think affirmative action makes more sense using finances (ie class) than race. Since most of the targetted groups are poorer, it’ll still help them greatly, and it’ll get rid of the racial resentments that come with basing it on race.

  68. john personna says:

    Related, Tyler Cowen:

    A large number of institutions in the top one hundred will move to a hybrid on-line model for a third or so of their classes and they will do so gradually, without seriously disrupting norms of conformity or eliminating campus life. In fact this will become the new conformity and furthermore through time-shifting it may increase the quantity and joy of drunken parties and campus orgies. Eventually these on-line classes will be sold for credit to outside students. Some top schools will sell credits in this manner, even if the more exclusive Harvard and Princeton do not. Many lesser schools will lose a third or so of their current tuition revenue stream. Note that the prices for these on-line credits, even if hybrid, will likely be much lower, plus lesser schools lose revenue to the schools better at designing on-line content.

    Much more at:

    How many bankruptcies to come in higher education?

  69. Just Me says:

    When I attended a state university back in the late 80’s, tuition was around $800 a semester, room was about $500 and I don’t remember board because I never used the meal plan (I prepared meals in my room or occasionally ate out). It was truly possible to work your way through school and graduate with no loans or at least very minimal loans.

    It is impossible to work your way through school now. In state tuition is around 14,000 dollars at the university my daughter attends, and it is around 26,000 with room and board. She does have some scholarships and receives some aid, but she still has to take out around 6,000 a year in loans.

    My younger daughter is graduating this year and is applying to colleges, we decided for her that she was going to apply to a couple of safe colleges that will admit her and provide financial aid similar to my older daughter’s. Then she is applying to a variety of colleges with endowments that meet 100% or very close to 100% of need. Most of these schools are selective to highly selective and the reality is that kids from wealthier school districts and various private schools will likely have an edge.

    College is ridiculously expensive now, and few colleges provide full ride or even full tuition scholarships for academic merit. College is highly competitive and the wealthy will always have an edge over kids from poorer districts where AP classes are often few and far between.