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.

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