Should working-class people go to college?

Should working-class people go to college?

Civic Cynthia
on Apr 19, 2011

This may sound like an irreverent question. It may sound like I’m denigrating either working-class people or college. So let me say this from the outset: I believe higher education is important and valuable. But do 4 year BAs deliver value for money?

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What do you think?

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Mike Shafarenko
on May 26, 2011 - 8:50 am

This article isn't exactly about working-class people, but the theme is the same. Any thoughts on this program offered by Peter Thiel?

Nancy Reeves
on May 16, 2011 - 12:25 pm

Very rich conversation (or full of rich conversation starters) on this issue on the Diane Rehm show today - going a bit farther and asking the question is college education right even for those students who have been planning for college since they were in diapers.

Lea Maxwell
on Apr 29, 2011 - 2:14 pm

Firstly, how do we define "working-class"? I know a great many people that are college educated but work as farmers, blue-collar workers, etc. (By choice-not due to underemployment.) Does their intelligence or income define them as "working-class"--or is it a status for the sake of status?

Take for example a two parent household, with one parent as a stay-at-home. Their income level might be lower, but if both parents were college graduates they might have a better safety net and be more prepared for what life throws at them.

I don't mean to imply that everyone should jump into college right after high school. But. I would say that it's one of the few things you should never regret doing. An education (in any field) is something you'll never lose.

Timothy Francisco
on Apr 21, 2011 - 4:38 pm

Hey Dan, Regarding the internship issue you mention, I've blogged about this on The Center for Working Class Studies site, "working class perspectives". I think it's especially problematic for working class students trying to break into journalism, where their voices and perspectives are needed most and represented least.



Sherry Linkon
on Apr 22, 2011

Dan is right that parents may be the only ones who truly have young people's interests at heart, but they may also lack information. That's why we need more public information -- in secondary schools but also in the media -- about the costs, options, and issues related to post-secondary education.

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Don Pawlowski
on Apr 20, 2011 - 12:48 pm

I would say there needs to be a purpose to attend college. So many people go to college just to go to college. Then they are stuck with a degree and no real direction, which is unfortunate. I wish more people realized the opprotunities in degrees that focus on the STEM categories. There is an imbalance, more people tend to recieve liberal arts degrees but the opportunites are in STEM.

In my opinion, working class people should go to college only if they intend on recieving a degree that provides a wide array of opportunites.



Lia Lockert
on Apr 20, 2011

For those who may not know, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Details here:

Sherry Linkon
on Apr 20, 2011

As my colleague Tim Francisco noted about a year ago, the claim that we need lots and lots of graduates with STEM specialties has been overblown. See his comments here.

Part of what I wanted to highlight is the tension between college as "purely practical" and college as learning for the sake of broader goals. I'd like to see anyone who really wants to learn to be able to afford college and to get better information on employment opportunities to all young adults.

Dan Stefancik
on Apr 21, 2011


Your statement: "...and to get better information on employment opportunities to all young adults." is possibly the most significant phrase in this entire thread. There can be no one-size-fits-all answer to the original question asked in this conversation because each point of view results from different underlying motives. If individuals are 'intelligent(?)' enough to even consider higher education in their lives, they should be able to absorb and digest all the possible opportunities, costs, roadblocks, rewards, and emotional roller coaster rides that accompany each and every potential choice.

The most helpful advice I can offer is to always consider the motives of those who attempt to steer a lifestyle decision in a particular direction. Other than caring parents, who in most cases *are* looking out for the best interests of their children, almost all the rest of those who attempt to influence direction have something to gain or lose from educational and occupational choices made by young adults.

Most of the people I grew up with spent their adult working lives with one or two employers. Our initial educational choices generally shaped our entire careers. That is not the case today. We all need to make a living, but do not be afraid to sample some alternatives. Higher education is not an all or nothing choice in this economic environment. It is just one more option available in many flavors and degrees of difficulty; as is vocational training, self employment, and even the military. Choose your first steps wisely, but wisely remember that you can always change direction later if you so desire.

Lia Lockert
on Apr 22, 2011

Dan, appreciate your post & I generally agree with your thoughts.

However, regarding the thought that smart individuals should be "able to absorb and digest all the possible opportunities, costs, roadblocks, rewards, and emotional roller coaster rides that accompany each and every potential choice". . .

I believe that the reason some intelligent young people *don't* pursue ivy league educations, high-end internships, travel abroad or certain employment opportunities is simply because it never occurs to them as a possibility. They can't navigate what they don't envision for themselves, regardless of innate intelligence.

A few key factors can dramatically impact a student's future: - early exposure to opportunities and ideas- a cheerleader who believes in that student's potential- a mentor to help navigate chosen pathways

All of these things can happen regardless of the student's socio-economic situation, school situation, etc. But it takes effort and dedication from that student's community (teachers, family, neighbors, non-profit orgs, mentorship programs, guidance counselors, others). Sure, these people might have their own reasons for influencing a student's direction, but if that student is presented with enough choices he/she will be empowered to make a good choice.

If a student does choose -- for financial or other reasons -- vocational school or community college, that doesn't mean s/he can't be exposed to the kind of "renaissance education" that helps foster innovation and critical thinking. The key is to include humanities disciplines in *all* educational settings and create support networks for students that encourage and guide them to pursue areas that spark interest.

If working class students have one disadvantage it's that they're not always made aware of opportunities that exist. Better marketing of innovative educational models and targeted mentoring programs could help shift that equation.

Dan Stefancik
on Apr 24, 2011

Lia, I completely agree that EARLY EXPOSURE to the options you mentioned is the key to developing a usable knowledge of them. Unfortunately for too many of the 'working class' youth of today, there is little or no first-hand knowledge available from custodial parents or other close family members. I suppose that it really may take a village approach to expose those kids to the larger realm of possibilities.

My earlier comments were mainly a response to the original title ..."Should working-class people go to college?"...where I questioned the motives of those who attempt to sway the decisions of today's crop of potential students. I just hate to see cash/opportunity starved adults bombarded by for-profit school recruiters and college admission counselors who are desperate to meet quotas. Spreading unrealistic pipe dreams of future success if they get a degree in just about anything is a recipe for both academic and financial failure for too many 'working-class' folks in the current economic quagmire....if they don't take the time to weigh ALL the currently available options.

Lia Lockert
on Apr 25, 2011

Agreed on all points.

Nainita Madurai
on May 26, 2011

I completely you agree with you Don. I feel like our society devalues taking time off before starting off in a 4-year college program. However, that time off could be beneficial in terms of helping people finding direction.So many students go into college with undecided majors. Maybe if they had a little working or traveling experience prior to attending college it would help them decide what it is they really want to do.I think this can be applied to the decision to attend grad schools as well.

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Lia Lockert
on Apr 20, 2011 - 11:39 am

There’s certainly no shame in *not* pursuing a traditional four-year degree; that perception needs to be changed. The key is cultivating learning environments (at all price points) that build "soft skills" like adaptability, critical-thinking and innovation.

Another issue: perceived prestige. A class taken at Harvard will be perceived as higher quality than a class taken at vocational school, even if it follows the same syllabus and is taught by the same professor. In this scenario, the value lies in the network of connections that come from a Harvard education rather than anything intrinsic to the class itself.

Our workforce model is shifting; today’s best-employed workers are those who continually re-invent. Vocational training can respond to this reality by expanding their networks, preparing students for lifetime learning (rather than an expectation of long-term single-employer stability), and providing hard skills training in cutting-edge industries.

A related point: There's been interesting discussion lately that (maybe unfairly) pits Bill Gates against Steve Jobs in the "tech skills vs liberal education" debate:’s-right—bill-or-steve/

Dan Moulthrop
on Apr 20, 2011 - 9:36 am

Sherry--I just heard Steven Dubner and Steven Leavitt talk about this on the Freakonomics podcast. The research they spoke of pointed to real financial benefits to completing a four year degree. That research was based on Vietnam Era decisions by people to attend or not and doesn't control for everything, but the findings are compelling.

College has changed so much, though, since then, and even in the last 20 years, and the number of unpaid internships college grads often take must change the earning dynamics, at least in the short term.

I'm looking forward to digging into your research when I get a moment.

Sherry Linkon
on Apr 19, 2011 - 2:30 pm

There's a very divided public discourse about education these days. Broad-based liberal arts degrees help foster critical-thinking and community awareness. But discussions about the value of the humanities and the broad social purposes of higher education represent just one part of the public debate. Another issue: economic costs and benefits.

The reality is that undergraduate education can create long-term financial strains for individuals and families. So is a 4 year BA worth the investment?

Read more thoughts and research on the issue here.



on Apr 27, 2011

I recently left a position where my employer's purpose was to advocate for the importance of technical education, specifically in manufacturing. I learned there needs to be a shift in the public's perception of what "college" means. I think most people think of a prototype "college" that is a 4-year university with a liberal arts core. We all need to expand our understanding of higher education to include education in trades and advanced manufacturing. Many "working class" careers require advanced math skills and 1-2 years of course work, some on-the-job, and some in classrooms or labs. Many employers also offer career paths that require continued coursework. I suppose my answer is yes, working class people should consider just might not be a 4 year degree.

Students who would exel in these type of careers often aren't in the college prep track because they know they aren't "college" material. It is important that students know about these alternate career paths so they don't fall behind--manufacturers find it difficult to find applicants with the needed math and science skills to take the advanced positions, or who are ready to do the coursework needed for the advanced jobs.

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