10 June 2010

College as Classist Institution

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:12 am

This post summarizes a variety of data on the finances of higher education, mostly unsullied by my own editorializing.

According to this article, major public universities in the US spend around $15K per student annually, with the government paying a little less than half. The schools’ spending keeps going up at a rate faster than inflation, while the state payment rate goes down. As a result, says this article, college tuition and fees have increased 500% since 1982. During that same interval, median family income increased 170%. I.e., tuition/fees have gone up three times as fast as income. Not surprisingly, college student borrowing has more than doubled in the last decade.

Is a college education worth it financially? Historically the answer seems to be an emphatic yes. The “wage premium” accruing to a college degree is substantial. On average, people holding a bachelor’s degree earn 78% more than those with a high school diploma, and 40% more than those with a 2-year associate degree. These income differentials have held quite steady for at least the past two decades. (from “Reducing Poverty by Aligning Policies,” by Anthony Carnevale, Georgetown U., downloadable here). Over a lifetime, the baccalaureate is worth nearly $1 million in expected earnings over what a high school graduate earns (source here).

Who takes advantage of the wage premium by going to college and earning the extra million? Preponderantly it’s those who already come from more well-to-do families. Looking just at the smartest kids, as indicated by the top quartile of SAT test scorers: 80% of smart kids from families with high socioeconomic status go on to a 4-year college, versus only 44% of smart kids from low-SES families. Thirty-one percent of the smartest but poorest kids don’t go to college at all, which is just about the same percentage as the dumbest (bottom quartile SAT) but richest kids. (From “Real Analysis of Real Education” by Carnevale, downloadable here.)

In brief, the rich get richer in part because they can afford to go to college, earn a degree, and earn more money as a result. The wealth gap in access to a college education is widening rapidly in the US.



  1. Another way to interpret this data is that smart kids from wealthy families will earn a million bucks more than the other kind in some way, and college education is currently the device for accomplishing this. I don’t think they’re the interesting part of the data. What I’d need to know is what the value of college looks like if we factor that first group out.


    Comment by Carl — 10 June 2010 @ 11:25 am

  2. “I don’t think they’re the interesting part of the data.”

    You can’t be serious, Carl: the data are fascinating but not self-interpreting, as is the case with most empirical investigations. I agree that further slicing-and-dicing would allow us to evaluate your theory. You’re suggesting that low-SES kids with a bachelor’s degree earn roughly the same as high-SES kids with a high school diploma? By implication you’re saying that it’s not worth it financially for low-SES kids to go to college, even the smart ones, because they wouldn’t be able to better their earnings thereby? Why do you think this to be the case? Is it that low-SES kids don’t have the aspirations or self-confidence or class aura to talk themselves into the high-priced jobs?

    Tell you what: I’ll email Carnevale (if I can track him down at Georgetown) to see whether he knows if such analyses have been conducted.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 June 2010 @ 11:47 am

  3. I found some data on race X education X income here. Across all educational levels, whites make on average around 20-25% more income than blacks. However, the income differential between high school diploma and bachelor’s degree is 85%, as I mentioned in the post. So the education differential is 3-4 times as strong statistically as the race differential. This is race not class, but interesting in its own right. My guess is that the 3 to 4-fold differential holds between SES background and education as well.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 June 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  4. Cool. What I meant by ‘not interesting’ is that those kids are set up for success by first access to many good variables, so the main thing they accomplish for an analysis like this is to skew the data for everyone else. They don’t make more money ‘because’ they go to college, they make more money because that’s their class habitus, with college as part of a much thicker bundle of how that happens. My question then is whether you can unbundle college and have it do the same work for someone without all the other stuff. I see no reason to think the answer is yes, although if the upmarket is big enough not to saturate with the children of privilege college might be important for who gets access to what’s left.

    This hypothesis is consistent with and parallel to your first point about how race works in #3. As for the raw data on education differential, it’s not helpful unless we can clean out the overdetermination of class reproduction. Of course wealthy whites who go to college make 85% more than poor whites who don’t, and it’s not ‘because’ they go to college, nor does it tell us if going to college would accomplish the same 85% for a poor white.


    Comment by Carl — 10 June 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  5. Yes I understand: we need education X income X family SES; or, more precisely, education by income controlling statistically for family SES.

    In the race X education X income graph I referenced in #3, I don’t think it’s a big interpretive stretch to say from those data that: (a) whites earn more than blacks/latinos across educational levels AND (b) college grads earn more than high school grads across races. Both race and educational attainment precede income in the lifespan, so at least the temporal sequence doesn’t eliminate causal interpretation. Of course there’s no reason to assert that being black or latino causes someone to make less money, as if race were an innate predisposition or potential for earning. Race is a social marker that offers structural advantages to whites. So too with education, the bachelor’s degree being a badge honored by other badge-holders who control hiring decisions. I’m sure we’re in general agreement here. The question is whether education, or more precisely the educational badge, confers higher socio-economic privilege over and above class and race barriers. The data on race suggest strongly that it does, albeit imperfectly. Now we need some data on SES, and I’ll bet it’s out there somewhere.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 June 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  6. (copy of an email I just sent…)

    Dr. Carnevale –

    Having read some of your online articles, I’m struck by your finding that (to put it crudely) smart but poor kids are no more likely to go to college than dim but rich kids. Combine that with the “wage premium” afforded by the college degree, and higher education starts looking more like a means whereby class distinctions in US society are widened rather than narrowed. I wrote a brief blog post about this inference, with links to your website, here: https://ktismatics.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/college-as-classist-institution/

    A commenter suggested that SES-based class distinctions would perpetuate themselves regardless of education. I.e., kids from wealthy families will make more income regardless of educational attainment, that college is just something rich kids do until it’s time for them to start making money. By implication, smart but poor kids wouldn’t benefit from the wage premium even if they graduate from college, because they are in effect permanently disadvantaged by class.

    I found an article looking at education x income x race, in which the results suggest independent effects for race on income and degree attainment on income. I suspect the same sort of pattern would hold for family SES. Can you point me toward a study which evaluates education x income x family SES, or perhaps education x income controlling statistically for family SES?

    Thanks in advance.

    John Doyle


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 June 2010 @ 2:09 pm

  7. Thanks for the post, John. I’m interested in the continued commentary. I appreciate Carl’s question/thought.


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 11 June 2010 @ 7:06 am

  8. No response yet from Dr. Carnevale, and so far Google has been unable to unearth the study I’m looking for — probably would require an actual trip to an actual academic library.

    Prior to 1981, income inequality in the US was declining; since then it’s been increasing — i.e., the rich are getting richer relative to the poor. During that same interval the earnings differential between high school grads and college grads has remained the same or increased. Real wages for high school grads have gradually decreased, as affected by trends like automation and moving unskilled jobs to cheap third-world labor markets. Over that 30-year interval a greater proportion of Americans graduated from college. Combining those findings, it could be inferred that the increasing income inequality in US society results at least in part from the college graduates work pool separating themselves further from the less educated.

    Still, these data don’t provide us with what we need to know about inter-generational persistence of class differences regardless of educational attainment. Of course the very rich can retain their wealth without working due to investment income, and the very rich have widened their wealth gap even faster over the past 30years. What interests us here is the fluidity of transition between prole and petit-bourgeois.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 June 2010 @ 8:13 am

  9. I suspect we’d agree that the traditional 4-year college experience isn’t just a matter of getting an education; it’s also a socialization ritual for entry into middle-class adulthood. I have no data immediately at hand to support this claim, but there are reasons to believe that, in adolescence, peer-to-peer socialization comes to dominate family socialization. I.e., I suspect that the gap between low-SES and high-SES kids attending the same college flattens out over the 4 years. College encourages students to find their place in society as a function of cooperation and competition among fellow college grads rather than in the traditional family-neighborhood structures of their childhood. And college grads are more geographically mobile than the less well-educated, forming new affiliations based on shared interests, wealth, jobs, rather than local and familial ties. In short, then, I would expect 4 years of college to provide the low-SES graduate not only with the required entry badge qualifying them for better-paying jobs, but also the bourgeois mindset that lets them aspire to and feel comfortable holding such jobs.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 June 2010 @ 8:40 am

  10. Here is Dr. Carnevale’s reply to my/Carl’s question:

    The idea that children of affluent families would continue to do well irrespective of their education is not supported by the facts. Parents can hand down their wealth directly or through the family business but for most of us our earnings depend principally on our occupations – especially sustained earnings over generations. And access to prestigious or well paid occupations depends more and more on preparation through college or graduate school. We dont make our money in college but college gives us access to the jobs that do.

    Employers are willing to pay more for kids with college degrees in certain occupations. And they are willing to pay a lot more for graduate degrees in certain occupations. This has not always been true. The college wage premium fell in the seventies but has risen dramatically ever since.

    This reality is also a barrier for low income kids. The day when you could start on the loading dock and work your way up to CEO is over. There are still the Bill Gates stories but they are the exception that prove the rules. Besides Gates Dad was a senior partner in one of the nations most prestigious law firms and he did get admitted and did two years at Harvard. He was a very good student.

    The principle way affluent parents pass on their wealth to their children nowadays begins with buying a house in the catchment area of a good public school district or buying elite private education and giving their children all the help they need to get into a good college that gives them access to curricula that eventually lead to high paid or highly sought after occupations.

    The other evidence on this point is that less advantaged youth can do well do through high achievement in school. With access and success in education less advantage students do outperfom more advantaged students.

    Education influences earnings through the access it provides to skilled occupations and state of the art technology on the job. Access to well paid professional and technical technical occupations are the most obvious examples. Each requires mastery of a particular body of certified knowledge in order to access hands on skills at work that will ultimately lead to higher earnings.

    In the old days there were more jobs that you could get with the right connectins but that is increasingly rare. Nowadays nepotism, cronyism and stereotyping still matter in getting jobs but educational reqiuirements matter a lot more, especially for good jobs.

    In the United States we provide the qualifiying competencies for access to high paid occupations in school pipelines that run from K-12 through graduate schools. You can still get into the right college or even the right job if you know the right people or look like them but a minimum of educational qualifications are increasingly required.



    Anthony P. Carnevale
    Research Professor and Director
    The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
    3300 Whitehaven St., NW, Suite 5000
    Washington, DC 20007


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 June 2010 @ 6:41 pm

  11. A college education serves a function more like a suit and tie for getting into a fancy restaurant than an oxygen tank for going scuba diving. It’s required to get you in, but it’s not what gets you in.

    In other words, what Carl said.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 11 June 2010 @ 11:48 pm

  12. Hi Asher. Carl said that the maitre d’ can tell the difference between a suit and a “suit,” that the maitre d’ sees the class behind the suit, that he’d seat the high-class clientele without suits before the low-class with suits. In the alternative restaurant, the suit gets you the seat. Neither maitre d’ is trying to figure out how smart you are or how much you know: it’s whether the man makes the clothes or the clothes make the man.

    Now I wish Dr. Carnevale had pointed us to some empirical evidence supporting his contention, but if SES data are similar to those for race, then the suit gets you in the restaurant but it doesn’t get you a table by the window. I see classism functioning especially at the suit store. If you’ve got the money to buy the suit, you can get seated in the restaurant; if you don’t, you cant. According to the data I cited in comment 3, blacks and latinos with a college degree make 85% more than those without — the same wage premium as whites earn from “having a suit.” Still, blacks/latinos with suits make 25% less on average than whites with suits — that’s about the same short-changing as women with suits receive. However, only half as many blacks and latinos buy suits when compared to whites, whereas nowadays more women than men are buying suits.

    If you’re the Bell Curve guy you’d say that class reflects merit, that the smart people rise to the top, and that maybe certain races and classes aren’t as smart as others. Alternatively, one could argue that the tests are culturally biased; however, they do predict college success. One could argue that college itself is culturally biased, and that is certainly true in part. But if the “under-cultured” manage to get in the door, do colleges imbue their students with the “right” culture for getting high-paying bourgeois jobs? I think probably so, at least in part.

    I grant that we’ve not unpacked SES sufficiently. Some of it is being flat poor, so you can’t afford college. Some of it is a cultural milieu of crap schools and crap neighborhoods and adults with crap jobs. Some of it is the habitus imbued by the milieu, the expectation that this is what life is like. As a consequence, not only are low-SES kids unable to pay for the suit; they’re unprepared for wearing it well, they don’t know how to order from the menu, they have bad table manners, etc. Again though, part of the question is whether the middle class habitus can be acquired by being immersed in a middle class collegiate social environment. This strategy of course entails picking low-SES kids off one at a time and moving them out and up financially; it does nothing for the low-SES environment they leave behind and the habitus it instills in its occupants.

    Still, the question in this post is whether high-aptitude, low-SES kids are being systematically excluded from the economic advantages that college affords. Other data cited by Carnevale indicate that, of the high-aptitude low-SES kids who enroll in a 4-year college, something like 90% graduate. This is a much higher rate than college enrollees generally. So it would seem that the apt but poor kids have what it takes to succeed in college, get the badge, go to the restaurant…


    Comment by ktismatics — 12 June 2010 @ 7:04 am

  13. My take on the restaurant is that there are people who are “on the list” and people who aren’t. If you are, you still have to wear the suit, but if you’re not, the suit doesn’t mean much.

    I wish Dr. Carnevale had pointed us to some empirical evidence supporting his contention
    Yeah — any evidence at all would have been helpful. But his interpretation is focused on material, measurable things, which provides some clues about his perspective. “Habitus” is harder to measure. Maybe it would be fruitful to compare rich kids who go into professions similar to their parents and ones who don’t — though this wouldn’t really capture it.

    If you’re the Bell Curve guy you’d say that class reflects merit
    Which only became truly ironic after 8 years of George W Bush.

    I think you’re right about college providing something more. It’s more even than the equivalent of table manners. It’s hooking students into networks of people that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to


    Comment by Asher Kay — 12 June 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  14. I actually learned some good data display techniques from the Bell Curve, which I used in a couple of projects. I’ve got another couple of relevant empirical studies queued up, but I got temporarily distracted by the objects again. I think that blogging phase has passed on; maybe they all have.

    Your college might have been useful for network connections, Asher, but mine sure wasn’t. Maybe it depends on the type of school: mine was a big state university, attended by people who came from pretty modest habiti. After I got my sheepskin I pretty much never had any contact from any of those people again. No, not quite: one couple invited me to their wedding two years later — they’ve subsequently divorced.


    Comment by ktismatics — 12 June 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  15. I guess it’s a relative thing. I was a very shy kid, and I remained a loner throughout college, so I never really got hooked into any networks. Neither of my parents went to college, so I didn’t really know how to make my way in academia.

    But on the other hand, neither of my siblings finished college, and they both ended up living in the same smallish town where they grew up, while I moved away.

    I think my life would have ended up a lot different if my parents had been academics.


    Comment by Asher Kay — 13 June 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  16. Even though my parents both graduated from college, and even though I had a full scholarship to anywhere I wanted to go, I was resistant to intellectual endeavor. So I coasted through 3 years at a mediocre college without really enjoying it much, quit for a year, then came back and graduated. It wasn’t until after I had gone to work for a few years that I got interested in learning or creating anything.

    While I was in college I had a sense that a trained ape could graduate if he had enough endurance. Being able to tolerate four more years after high school, or having enough money to persist, might be what separates so many of the low-SES kids from a seat at the restaurant. There are plenty of jobs that require a college degree which aren’t all that challenging: 6 months on the job and you reach a professional level of competence.

    It’s been enlightening to see our kid develop a persistent enthusiasm both for scholarship and for the arts. Maybe it’s parenting, maybe innate talent, maybe peer environment — I suspect it’s the last two factors more than the first. How are your kids progressing, Asher? Do they have a spark, or is it too soon to tell?


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 June 2010 @ 9:09 pm

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