elite education & class immobility

The NYTimes article “The college dropout boom,” discusses one of the largest and fastest growing groups of young people in America–college nongraduates, most of whom plan on returning to get degrees, few of whom do.

In the 1960s one in five people in their twenties fell in the category of people who had some college education, but no degree. The percentage has risen to one in three.

Most of the nongraduates are from the working class. Only 41% of people from low-income backgrounds graduate college within five years, while 66% of high income students do. While going to college has become the norm, even for the working class, graduating from college remains the province of the privileged minority.

Dropouts cite what they see as the daunting length of schooling (4 years), low grades, feeling alienated from college students, and comfort with non-college friends in their decision to leave college. Working class people say they “just want more control” over their lives, not new lives.

Other factors in the working class college dropout rate include: many highschools do a poor job preparing (across disciplines) and advising teenagers for college; colleges where working class students enroll have fewer resources; colleges where working class students enroll have fewer majors–students can get alienated; and privatization and tuition rates have ballooned–leaving massive debt the only recourse to degree. College is nonetheless still cloaked in a mystifying shroud of meritocracy–“The system makes a false promise to students,” says John Casteen, President of the University of Virginia.

Some dropouts come from “towns where the factory work ethic, to get working as soon as possible, remains strong” (NYTimes May 24, 2005: A18). Although a higher percentage of college dropouts than college graduates consider college important, “once students ‘take a break’–the phrase many use instead of ‘drop out’,” it is a “tug of war between living in the present and sacrificing for the future”–a tug of war in which the present wins out (New York Times 5/24/05: A19). Finally, the working classes consider the higher-ranked colleges to be simply out of consideration, even when they have small but generous recruitment programs.

Some colleges are weighing the burdens of taking class into account. “If we are blind to the educational disadvantages associated with need, we will simply replicate these disadvantages while appearing to make decisions based on merit,” said Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College. With several populous states banning race-based affirmative action, and the Supreme Court suggesting it may outlaw such race-based programs in future decades, polls consistently show wide support for affirmative action based on class. Currently, high-income students get more financial aid from colleges than low-income students do, on average–partly because American elite schools, geared for the world’s wealthiest classes, are now so expensive as to be out of the financial range of the upper middle class families that send their super-prepared, high achievers to them.

Post-highschool educational institutions that working class students have more access to and that are easier transitions, are also traps. While to some extent intended as feeders to degree-granting colleges, “over all, community colleges tend to be places where dreams are put on hold.” 75% of students attending community college say they intend to get their bachelor’s degree. Only 17% of community college students even continue on to a BA-granting school.

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