College isn’t just about social mobility

Poor kids are told college is the key to social mobility, writes Andrew Simmons in The Atlantic. What about learning?

One of his 12th-grade students, “Isabella,” wrote a college admissions essay about wanting to pursue a career in oceanography.

The essay’s core concerned the rhetoric that educators had used to motivate her and her peers—other minority students from low-income communities. . . . Since elementary school, teachers had rhapsodized about the opportunities that four years of higher education could unlock. Administrators had rattled off statistics about the gulf in earnings between college graduates and those with only high-school diplomas. She’d been told to think about her family, their hopes for her, what they hadn’t had and what she could have if she remained diligent. She’d been promised that good grades and a ticket to a good college would lead to a good job, one that would guarantee her financial independence and enable her to give back to those hard-working people who had placed their faith in her.

Thankfully, Isabella decried this characterization as shortsighted and simplistic.

Simmons teaches black and Latino students in Los Angeles. Educators repeatedly tell them “that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security,” he writes.

His students care a great deal about money because their families have so little of it, he writes. They fantasize about well-paid careers, but don’t understand the work they’d do as a lawyer or doctor. “According to ACT’s College Choice Report from November 2013, 32 percent of students pick a college major that doesn’t really interest them,” lowering their odds of completing a degree.

College should be “sold” to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening. . . . we need to proactively teach our most marginalized students that honing an intellectually curious frame of mind is as essential to leading an invigorating working life as ambition and work ethic.

How many  high school students have an intellectual passion (or interest) they want to pursue in college? Isabella will get scholarships to pursue her dream. (If she earns a PhD, the money’s good.) But the B and C students really do need to worry about qualifying for a decent job without going into debt.

Why I let my daughter get a “useless” college degree gives the upper-middle-class parent’s perspective. The daughter is majoring in American Studies “with a focus on the politics and culture of food at a small liberal arts school.”

My daughter majored in American Studies with a minor in Creative Writing, worked as a book publicist, earned a law degree and now works as a literary agent.

About Joanne


  1. This article is a great example of lower income students (and often their teachers) being very vague about the details of their aspirations. The article talks about students not knowing what a lawyer or doctor does, but then confuses oceanography (which requires a geoscience background and where pay is pretty good) with marine biology (in which students major in biology and where the competition for jobs is fierce). I don’t see any evidence from the article that Isabella is interested in oceanography at all.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:


      A lot of us low-income types had/have no idea what actual majors in College are really about.

      I would have sworn up and down that I was going to be an English/Theatre major when I was just starting college. But this was based on my experience with these fields at a high school level, which is VERY different than the same at a collegiate level. (I ended up majoring in Philosophy and Medieval History.)

      Keep in mind that this carries over to Grad School, too. When I was applying to Ph.D. programs for Philosophy, I actually had very little idea what the field was really like. My undergraduate experience had been VERY heavily stilted to the historical, to the point where I didn’t quite realize that people were really still doing Philosophy.

      That’s the sort of thing that people who know better just assume you know. But a lot of times, we (being kids who were raised well outside of the business/academic/professional world) simply don’t know.

      If I couldn’t even get a good sense of what certain fields were like when I was actively participating in them (in high school and college), how the heck is someone supposed to get a sense for what Oceanography entails?

      • One thing that I’ve seen a lot of is students going into the biological sciences and then being frustrated that there is so little outside work. If you work in a agriculture department, you’ll spend the vast majority of your time in a lab, not a field or forest. Students also go into sports-related fields without realizing how much writing and math they involved (press releases and game stats). I don’t really blame the students – I was the same way – but it does mean that I go out of my way to talk to my hs (and former cc) students about what they want to do. I tell them what I know and, when possible, try to connect them (at least by email) with friends or family who work in their field of interest.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    As for the article itself, I think Simmons is missing the point of his own writing. Consider the following two quotes:

    “College should be “sold” to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening. All students should learn that privilege is connected to the pursuit of passions. People are privileged to follow their hearts in life, to spend their time crafting an identity instead of simply surviving. Access to higher education means that your values and interests can govern your choices.”


    “My students are understandably preoccupied with money. They don’t have the privilege to not worry about it. They fantasize about what their future wealth will permit them to enjoy. They dream about specific models of cars in certain colors and gargantuan houses in particular neighborhoods and opulent meals at their favorite restaurants any time they wish.”

    What Simmons seems to be missing is that his students’ values *ARE* governing their choices. Their values, it would seem, are just a little declasse for his taste.

    I think this whole article reveals that what Simmons actually wants is for his students to have “better” (read: middle/upper class) values, but he assumes that they already do, and that they aren’t being given the opportunities to properly pursue them. That’s a dangerous (and frankly, classist) assumption.

    But in order for students to exercise middle- and upper-class values, they have to be given those values first. And if that’s really what you want to do, then that may require some explicit and sometimes heavy-handed “cultural imperialism” to conquer the pervading mindsets and instill an appreciation for the sorts of things Simmons wants for his students.

    It’s a bind. Many of the very sort of people who decry this sort of cultural assimilation are the very sort of people who really, deep-down, want to see it happen.

    • Is it even true that following your passions will lead to crafting an identity instead of surviving? If your passion is to work for the CDC, as his example goes, then fine, sure. But an awful lot of us have passion for art or writing or some other thing that no one is going to pay us much to do. I love sewing and can produce smocked dresses that would have to retail for a couple of hundred dollars, minimum–if anyone could afford them. Maybe I could make a living out of that, but I doubt it, and anyway I don’t like having to do it to order. A lot of us need day jobs to finance our passions, which are otherwise known as hobbies.

      Yesterday a good friend of mine who is a policeman told me his daydream of going to school and learning about…well, it would pretty much constitute a PhD in Hebrew and theological studies. This is not a way to support a family. He is an excellent cop, and I figure his daydream will stay a hobby instead of a full-time career that would allow him to starve while crafting an identity.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Fine. Sell college as “an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening.” But then, be serious about it. Don’t let employers use a college degree as a screening device (which, of course, hits young people from low income families hardest). In fact, push for it to be illegal to do so, unless the degree is really required to do the job–just like an employer can’t screen by whiteness or maleness unless it involves casting a movie or hiring sperm donors. Make sure students are coming to university for the intellectual experience, not to punch a ticket.

    Right now academics are perfectly happy with the fact that you can’t get a “good job” if you don’t have a college degree and are also perfectly happy that said college degree may do nothing to help the luckily employed actually do that job.

    I am increasingly disgusted by the pretense of academics–or perhaps just the unawareness of privilege.

    Michael, from my experience of middle/upper class students, he doesn’t want his students to have middle/upper class values. He wants them to have academic values. He certainly is a cultural imperialist, but he probably finds middle/upper class values overly practical and materialistic.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Fair enough, Roger. Though from my side of the fence, academic values and upper/middle class values all sort of looked like the same thing.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        There are certainly similar. Two differences jump out at me. Academic values say that the most important institution in any society is the schools, and that the best thing one can do with one’s life is to make a career in them. Which directly and indirectly (“too many” PhD programs) leads to adjuncts, the great reserve army of the academic unemployed.

        Second, academic values imply that power and money should be redistributed from people who are successful in business to people who are successful in academia.

        I think many academics feel that part of their mission is to move young people’s values toward more academic ones.

    • More employers definitely need to wake up to the fact that someone with work ethics and a willingness to learn on the job is way more valuable in the short and long-run than someone with a diploma – no matter where it comes from. Doing what it takes to get a degree does not necessarily equate to having a work ethic.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Agreed. The problem is that right now lots of employers think the lack of a diploma signals lack of work ethic and inability to learn on the job.

        • Maybe the employers are looking over their collective
          shoulder at Griggs.
          Laws getting less expansive these days, are they?

          • Richard, What is Griggs about? I don’t recognize the reference.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Giggs v. Duke Power Company was a 1971 Supreme Court case that interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment. Duke Power Company had used IQ tests in determining hiring and promotions. The lower court found that there was no conscious attempt to favor whites over blacks. However, as a group, whites score better than blacks on IQ tests. Today, we would say that requiring a certain IQ score has a “disparate impact” on whites and blacks.

            The Court held that intent was irrelevant. Whenever there is disparate impact, there is a rebuttable presumption of discrimination. The employer could rebut the presumption by proving that the test was a very good predictor of job success. Since then, it has become clear that it is almost impossible to “validate” a test to the satisfaction of the courts and agencies.

            Thus, potential employers pretty much can’t require potential applicants to take tests, or volunteer test scores. Employers are, however, allowed to require degrees or certifications. This is a major part of the business model of American schools.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            Roger. Slicker than I could have done. Question; You mention IQ tests. IIRC, it also covers employment-specific aptitude testing, no?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Yes, it does. Though it certainly didn’t have that intent, it has had the effect of shielding schools from competition in the credentialing business.

            Ironically (or perhaps something stronger), requiring diplomas also has a very, very disparate impact, privileging whites and Asians over blacks and hispanics. Yet the courts and agencies (run by people who did well in school) have no problem with it.

    • That law all ready exists. Feel free to file a lawsuit. Start with the federal government where the OMB regulations specifically prohibit the requirement of a degree unless it is specifically required for the positions duties. Yet, they require degrees all the time. And if you don’t have a degree, you get hired on at a much lower level.

      Of course, your liberal arts degree holder will be hardest hit since almost by definition, their specific major offers no useful knowledge for productive work. They, perhaps, develop soft skills, but that isn’t captured in the credential.

  4. Gone are the days when we, as parents, would ask what our children wanted to be when they group up.
    These days, modern world has given many parents not much of a choice when helping their children to grow into various life goals.
    With parents feeling like there are limitations, they groom their children to only accept career choices that may go against what they actually would be suited for or would understand more.

    Money has become number one priority, thus people are immersing – and forcing themselves to accept the different educational path they would need in order to keep up with what they think everyone’s doing.