For decades, “go to college” has been sole recipe for social and economic mobility offered up by Republicans and Democrats alike. But the 2016 election revealed the limits of “college for all.” For one, only 1/3 of Americans actually have bachelors degrees, as Joan Williams points out in her new book, The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Williams argues that higher education has become a way for professional elites to “reproduce” and transfer class status. Note: this episode is the first in a three part series exploring the question of what—and for whom—college is for.
Have You Heard: You note in your book that many professional elites occupy such a bubble that they rarely encounter people who haven’t gone to college.
Joan Williams: That’s right. When I would point out that only one-third of Americans have bachelors degrees, there were people who literally didn’t agree with me. They just said that has to be wrong. People who have to have gone to college for generations and all of their friends have graduated from college, they were just completely dumb with disbelief.
But there are a lot of very concrete reasons why working-class kids, by which I mean the true middle class, might not want to go to college. It’s economically very risky to go to college right now. It’s very expensive and a lot of people end up starting college and not finishing. They end up paying many thousands of dollars in debt while they’re earning the wages of a high school graduate. Middle and working-class kids are very well aware of that. It’s also literally harder for them to get into college with the same credentials than it is for kids of professional classes.
Have You Heard: There’s a chapter in the book about why working-class Americans don’t just move to where the jobs are. But you could ask a similar question about college: if the key to social and economic mobility is to go to an elite school, why don’t working-class kids just do that?
JW: The children of elites are trained for college intensively from a very small age. And the assumption within the family is that, of course you love your parents, but you’re going to travel hundreds or thousands of miles away to go to college. That is not the assumption in what’s called the working class but is really the middle class. There the assumption is that you will remain in your parents clique networks. These are small, rooted, geographically based networks, and the assumption is that you’ll help each other with child and elder care and home repairs and so on. And using these small clique networks composed of family and close friends basically protects people from their disadvantaged place in the market. For example, they don’t have to pay to buy the kind of childcare that you could buy for four dollars an hour. Instead grandma takes care of the kids.
And so when one of these blue-collar kids wants to go 2,000 miles away to college, it’s treated as a bizarre decision. And it may also be treated as a kind of rejection often, of where you grew up, and as a statement that you don’t know where you came from and that you’ve got your nose in the air. You’ve got a swelled head and people become in this really difficult and uncomfortable class situation which I think of as class migrant guilt, and which is almost never talked about.
Have You Heard: You argue that the class divide basically starts from the minute kids are born, and that for elite parents that means an intense process of grooming kids for college and professional success.
JW: With the increase in economic inequality and accompanying economic anxiety, the fear of falling out of the middle class and not keeping up has become incredibly intense. One of the consequences is that the definition of what it means to be a good parent has reallychanged. A good mother in elite families has to discover their child’s every little micro talent and develop it in the next millisecond, which is where you see these intense and unrelenting performance pressures. And it’s not good for these kids, who now sometimes report higher levels of anxiety than even inner city kids do. But what this intense performance pressure does is train them up for the kind of competitive jobs that they’re going to have.
In non-elite environments you still see the kind of ideology of natural growth that I was brought up with. You clothe them, you feed them, you love them, and it’ll be fine. But the result is that you have these class-differentiated childhoods leading to class-differentiated futures.
Have You Heard: The 2016 election revealed the limitations of the Democrats’ approach to economic mobility and inequality, which has basically just been to tell people to go to college.
JW: The assumption that if you care about your future you will graduate from college is no longer a viable assumption. Even in countries that have actually put their money where their mouth is on the college for all ideal, which we did not, only about half of all people graduate from from college. And the fact is there are many important jobs that we need done that are not knowledge work. You know when I get up in the morning and turn on my tap it’s not because of some knowledge work that water comes out. What we really need is a new education to employment system where local community colleges or companies identify the specific skills that employers are going to need as we transition to an economy where 60 percent of jobs will require interaction with robots. People are going to need technical skills not necessarily a four year degree.
I do think as someone who has been teaching in higher education since I was 28 years old, we should not abandon the goal of making college more accessible to a broader range of people. That remains an extremely important goal. It’s just not the only goal that we need to have.
Note: this is an edited transcript.