College Amplifies Advantages & Disadvantages

Here’s some bad news for all of us who strive to get more working-class first-generation students into and through college: college is not an effective leveller. Class inequalities persist even among graduates of ‘good’ colleges. Expanding opportunities for higher education is ineffective if advantaged students graduate with even greater advantages, and if disadvantaged graduates still fall behind.

In her new book Amplified Advantage, Allison Hurst tracks students at small liberal arts colleges and finds differences during and after college among those from different class backgrounds – differences that turn out to have a huge impact on adult careers and life satisfaction.

By surveying thousands of seniors at 37 colleges, and then half of them again after graduation, and interviewing 250 of them, Hurst was able to look at how seemingly identical college experiences actually tend to vary by class background. Choosing which colleges to apply to, picking majors, participating in extracurricular activities and social life are all choices made differently depending on class, and have a lasting impact on life after college. Some of Hurst’s key findings included:

  • Economically elite students typically had a predisposition to choose easy or quirky majors, and spent the most time socializing of any class, often in fraternities and sororities, and ended up with good contacts for future high-paying jobs.

  • High-cultural-capital students (whose parents are professors or professionals in arts, nonprofits, etc.) typically had predispositions towards being serious about schoolwork and towards civic engagement and campus leadership, setting them up to match nonprofit employers’ expectations.

  • Lower-middle-class and middle-class students typically had predispositions to choose vocational majors that they thought would get them a job right after college. These students were more likely to fail to take advantage of the cultural, academic and social enrichment opportunities that liberal arts colleges offer, which would have improved their fit with employers hiring beyond the entry level.

  • Working-class and the lowest-income students typically got all of their information about the purpose of education from the schools themselves, so (surprisingly) they were the most likely to value learning for its own sake, choosing majors based on their interests. They were least likely to have a realistic picture of how majors, social ties and extracurriculars matter for future job prospects.

Hurst’s most depressing discovery is how many graduates regret going to college, given their high debt and poor job prospects afterwards: 12% of working-class-background graduates and 21% of lower-middle-class-background graduates said the degree was not worth it, compared with only 1% of upper-middle-class students. Among students of color of all class backgrounds, 54% said their post-graduation expectations were not met. The survey of recent graduates happened during the Great Recession, so perhaps these rates of dissatisfaction were lower in recent years.

As is so often true, financial differences only explain part of this widening class inequality. Because liberal arts colleges often give “full ride” scholarships, there wasn’t a big difference in debt amount or work hours among students of different classes. Hurst is an accomplished scholar of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, so she can apply his theories to these students’ experience and explain clearly how class reproduction happens through social capital (who you know) and cultural capital (what you know, and cultural fit with employers and other decision-makers). A childhood in a particular class creates predispositions towards class-specific attitudes and behaviors, which play out in schools and workplaces in ways that steer the adult towards the same class they grew up in—unless something happens to change the predispositions, such as immersion in a different class environment.

Liberal arts colleges aim to alter the class predispositions of first-gen and low-income students, in order to put them on an even playing field for professional and managerial careers. But they are not succeeding at that mission nearly as well as intended, given how advantaged students graduate with their advantages amplified.

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