The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility
My brother joined a Maoist political party in college in the early ’70s and was sent to work in an auto plant. He was supposed to convert the workers there to Marxism-Leninism but instead he was converted to an industrial working-class culture that included country music, hard drinking, and pot smoking. He found this to be more conducive to his own proclivities than the precepts of the Little Red Book. Like many students in the ’60s and ’70s, he had been radicalized by the student movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. The inequality and injustices that generation of students witnessed and experienced led many of them to the anti-capitalist ideas of various schools of socialism and Marxism. Some sought to spread these ideas to the working class in order to foment a revolution against capital that they imagined could restructure the society to the benefit of all. The students saw themselves as separate from the working class. Their conception of the working class was mainly the factory worker, the miner, the truck driver—the industrial workers who fought the great labor battles of the first half of the 20th century. They visualized themselves bringing their radical ideas to these blue-collar industrial workers and raising their consciousness, awakening them to the inequities of capitalism.
While the auto workers, coal miners, and construction workers had no interest in revolution, the student movement, increasingly radicalized throughout the 1960s, became more revolutionary, reaching its apex in the massive student strike of May 1970 that spread from college campuses to community colleges to high schools and resulted in the cancellation of classes for the remainder of the school year. Four million students walked out of school. The leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other radical organizations, however, did not see in this the spark of the revolution they wanted. Students, they thought, were powerless against the capitalists without the support of the working class. Corporate leaders at the time, however, were shaken by the massive student movement and the talk of revolution. In 1971, Life magazine published photos of the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871, with the hundreds of corpses of the defeated communards lying in the streets. With their long hair and beards they looked very much like the radical students of the 1970s. The message seemed to be a warning to the American students. The ruling class needn’t have worried, though. The movement began to dissipate soon after that, as SDS and the revolutionary parties split into rival factions like the Weathermen, who called for a violent uprising, while others looked to send their members into factories and communities to organize. Most of the students returned to their classes in the fall or went back after a few years to finish their degrees. What was for some of them a brief flirtation with revolution mostly dissipated with graduation and their entry into the workforce.
The student movement of the ’60s and ’70s was portrayed by the media as a middle-class phenomenon, a revolt of privileged suburban youth against the conformity of their parents’ generation. But this was a time of vast expansion of higher education, with the entry into college of many who were the first of their generation to attend and many who were the sons and daughters of working-class parents. No matter their class background, however, college students for the most part thought of themselves as middle-class by virtue of their education.
For the first half of the 20th century, a college education was largely reserved for the wealthy, but the post-war boom brought changes to American higher education. Government assistance programs like the GI Bill and federal student loan programs allowed for a great expansion of college enrollment. A college degree was seen as a ticket to a good-paying job and a rise in social standing. Things changed again, though, as the post-war economic boom came to an end. By the 1970s the trajectory of upward mobility was no longer guaranteed by the possession of a degree and by the 1980s the era of the educated underclass had begun.
In The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility, Gary Roth leads us through this history and, with thorough research, exposes the numerous myths and misconceptions that abound in the connections between education, class, and upward mobility. His goal is to show that a recreation of the working class is taking place as expanded numbers of college students enter into the world of work.
He has used his experiences as a college instructor and administrator to focus on the changing conditions in American higher education over the past 50 years, tracking the social mobility of graduates over that period. It is a timely subject for today’s world, where many recent graduates find themselves unemployed, or working at jobs for which a degree is not necessary—what Roth refers to as the underemployed. The promise that a college degree would be a ticket to a good job and a career has proven for many to be a hollow one that has left them stuck in unfulfilling low-paying jobs and saddled with student debt. Roth investigates this myth in depth, unravelling the complexities in the relationship between higher education and social mobility.
A lot of research has been done on income inequality, so there is a considerable amount of data on intergenerational mobility based on income and wealth. Using tables that divide the population into quintiles, Roth shows that a large proportion of the upper and lower income brackets show no movement from one generation to the next. With a college degree, the chances of moving up from the lowest rung do increase somewhat; while at the top income bracket, where many more actually earn a bachelor's degree, the chances of remaining in the top are substantially improved. But the degree only helps to compensate for the headwinds that prevail against those from the lower income bracket, while those at the top have the tailwind of their family financial and cultural capital to aid them. As Roth points out, “earning a bachelor’s degree does not level the playing field for children from families at opposite ends of the income spectrum.”
In an expanding economy like that of the few decades following World War II all sectors of the population could experience upward mobility, but in the stagnating economy that followed for the next 50 years only the top 20 percent showed any significant gains in income while the top one percent saw an increased income of close to 200 percent. This is the world into which college students graduate today, a work environment where only the upper strata have seen more than a minuscule gain over the last half century. On top of this, many are saddled with burdensome student debt. Over half of all college students finance their education using loans, and for those in the lowest fifth income bracket this is often the only way to pay for what amounts to 50 to 100 percent of their family’s income for a four year public college. As Roth points out, however, the reality of the student debt crisis is not reflected in the amount of individual debt. Wealthier families are more likely to send their children to more selective schools, whence they are better able to get into graduate school or post-college professional programs. Although they might emerge with a debt as large as $40,000 or more, they are more able to find good-paying jobs allowing them to pay back their loans far more easily than a low-income student with a $5,000 debt from a less selective four-year or two-year college. Those students are more likely to have trouble making their payments or to default on their loans, causing problems with credit down the road. If they dropped out before graduation, which is far more common in students from the lower income brackets, they will find it difficult to return to finish their degree. Student debt, which was once seen as a means to upward mobility, has now become an impediment to it.
Since the 1990s the number of graduates with four-year degrees working in jobs where a college degree is not a requirement has been increasing, while the quality of these jobs has been decreasing. In the new gig economy recent graduates often find themselves accepting low wages and part-time work. These underemployed now make up a large part of the work force constituted by all college graduates (30 to 35 percent). As Gary Roth writes: “Most people have rather out-of-date images of social mobility, in which people’s lives improve gradually but steadily over long periods of time due to a combination of decent salaries and stable employment. This image no longer fits reality.” The reality now is that a college degree is more likely a hedge against spiraling further down the income scale, as college graduates replace non-graduates in these low paying jobs. This in turn makes it more difficult for the non-graduates to find any work at all. Whereas once college students took union factory jobs like my brother did, with the goal of educating and radicalizing their co-workers, now they might consider themselves lucky to get such a job.
Through all of this analysis, Roth does not lose sight of what he sees as his primary task, to show how the fate of college students is tied to the overall dynamics of the economic system. As the capitalist world economy stagnates, opportunities diminish, competition for the better jobs increases, and, as always, those who start out higher on the social scale are better able to advance or at least to hold their own while the others struggle to avoid precarity. The education system thus is primarily a “mechanism to maintain social position from one generation to the next.” Those at the top tend to stay there while the rest struggle to keep from falling below the level of their parents. It is their class position as future wage earners that unites them with each other and with other members of the working class despite the social stratification that takes place during the sorting and winnowing out of the education process. It is the popular conception of class as social stratification, based on income, education level, and family background, that divides them from each other within a vast “middle class” and separates them from the sociological categories of the “upper” and “lower classes.”
Roth recognizes the difference between class as a theoretical construct, as used by Marx to explain the dynamics of the capitalist system, and the sociological and popular idea of class based on income and wealth. The former unites a large swath of the population in the category of those who depend on wages to survive, the working class, while the latter separates the population into an infinite number of divisions according to their access to consumer goods and services:
Material things separate people and make them unequal economically, people who otherwise are uniquely diverse in their individuality and who also share a similar fate vis-a-vis society at large. A focus on class emphasizes those aspects of social reality that people have in common, such as the dependence on employment and laboring activity, whereas difference and differences are stressed by the social sciences.
Roth set out to explain “the role of education within these two realms of equality and inequality,” with the aim of showing that a large working class is reemerging. The term “working class” has fallen out of common use, replaced by the three-level view of class: the upper class of the very wealthy, the lower class of the very poor, and the vast middle class of everybody else. Some of Roth’s students, he tells us, never heard of the working class until they got to college, but thought of themselves as middle-class despite wide disparities within that group in family wealth and education. With so many college graduates underemployed, they now find themselves in the same position as the traditional working class, their degree no longer granting them any type of privileged position. The sociological division into income strata becomes less relevant, while the concept of class as a social power relationship is more pertinent to their situation.
The working class is international in nature, just as capital is supranational, as it flows across state boundaries in its worldwide reach. In the first quarter of the 21st century we are witnessing a rise in nationalism akin to that which took hold of the world in the first half of the last century. In 1914 a powerful working-class movement for social and political power was fractured by nationalism, as the socialist parties of Europe broke from each other. Against the pleas of many of their members and their own rhetoric of international solidarity, they supported their national governments’ entry into World War I, a war in which the workers of all the countries of Europe and the wider world slaughtered each other in vast numbers. Then, after the devastation caused by that war and the economic collapse of the Great Depression, the super-nationalistic movement of fascism arose to counter the revolutionary response of the working classes. It is no coincidence that we are now witnessing another proliferation of authoritarian nationalist movements throughout the world at a time of increasing economic difficulty and stagnating working-class living standards. Nationalism is the glue that binds the working class to the capitalist class in what is promoted as their common interest, at the same time dividing them from other members of their class.
In the current crisis of the capitalist world order manifested in a stagnating world economy propped up by infusions of government spending, with massive youth unemployment, the rise of authoritarianism and constant war, all exacerbated by the developing climate apocalypse, hope for salvation rests on the working people of the world becoming conscious of their common interest in wresting control of human social organization from the blind power of capital and the wealthy overseers who do its bidding. College students, who once saw themselves as separate from the working class but who nevertheless often played a role in the social movements that arose throughout the 20th century and beyond, are no longer separated from that class by their education but form the new educated working class. As such they have an important role to play in any new movement of working people. As Gary Roth writes in the close of this book: “For college students to find the working class, they need merely to glance in a mirror.” The educated underclass may be over-educated for the jobs that are available to them but they have the education necessary for a post-capitalist future world of sustainability and equality.