Friday, December 24, 2010

Reflections on a Recent NYT article

Last week, my friend Judy e-mailed me an interesting article from the New York Times, and I now finally have some time to write about it.

Find the article here... hopefully

For anyone who doesn't feel like reading the whole thing, here's the gist. It's a December 17th article entitled "Is Going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?"

The article begins by discussing well cited studies that have claimed that:
Strong evidence emerges of a significant economic return to attending an elite private institution, and some evidence suggests this premium has increased over time.

Alumni of the most selective colleges earned, on average, 40 percent more a year than those who graduated from the least selective public universities, as calculated 10 years after they graduated from high school

The author then brings up that it has been over a decade since the research yielding these results was completed and that the incredibly high cost of elite colleges in the present day should have an effect on these results. He goes on to discuss the different factors in this discussion from cost of college, strength of alumni ties, the current job market, job satisfaction, and strength of different academic department, to ultimately conclude that the best choice for each student will be different and dependent on many different factors.

While I find this whole article interesting, especially as it is relevant to my status as the graduate of an elite college, there were some statements made about low-income students that I found particularly worthy of discussion.

First, the author discusses a study that compared the earnings of students of the same academic caliber (based on SAT scores and class rank) who went to highly selective and less selective schools. The study found that:
The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same — perhaps shifting the ledger in favor of the less expensive, less prestigious route. (The one exception was that children from “disadvantaged family backgrounds” appeared to earn more over time if they attended more selective colleges. The authors, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger, do not speculate why, but conclude, “These students appear to benefit most from attending a more elite college.”)

I found this little side note about 'disadvantaged' students incredibly interesting and found myself wondering why the authors of the study refused to speculate as to why disadvantaged students benefit so much from an elite college education. To me, the answer is perfectly clear: Social and Cultural Capital. In the sociology classes that I've taken, I learned that groups that are widely considered disadvantaged are not only lacking in income or savings financially, they are lacking the social and cultural resources to allow them to be mobile in society. Social and Cultural Capital refer to the resources, physical or imaginary, that aid in social mobility. Social capital refers to who you know: the types of people and communities that you are connected to. Cultural capital refers to different experiences or knowledge that you can acquire. Members of higher social classes tend to have a lot of both types of capital- they gain social capital by knowing powerful heads of companies, community leaders, politicians, etc. and they gain cultural capital by going to 'good' schools, being exposed to music and the arts, or travelling. These people, in general, have more and stronger connections beyond their immediate communities or families than members of less privileged social groups. As far as this particular example of elite colleges go, the study results do not surprise me. For wealthy students, the level of selectivity of their college has little relation to their future success because with or without the resources such an institution has to offer, they have family and cultural connections that will help them succeed in society. For disadvantaged students, however, the resources and types of capital they can gain from an elite college are most likely very unlike those they were exposed to growing up, and without attending those schools they might have never been exposed to them. Thus, they gain much more from their experience in an elite school then their wealthier peers. Of course, this then brings up issues of the dominant society and expectations of mobility, but I think that's more than I would like to go into tonight.

Later on in the article, the author discusses the worth of an elite college education for those interested in being trained in college to go directly into the work force:
Someone who knew he needed to earn a reliable salary immediately after graduation, and as a result chose to study something practical like business or engineering, might find the cost-benefit analysis tilted in favor of a state school, he said [referring to a sociologist mentioned earlier in the article].

“Students from less affluent backgrounds are going to find themselves in situations where college is less about ‘finding themselves,’ and more about skills acquisition and making contacts that will lead straight into the labor market,” Mr. Thomas said. For such a student, he said, a state university, particularly a big one, may also have a large, passionate alumni body. It, in turn, may play a disproportionate role in deciding who gets which jobs in a state in a variety of fields — an old-boy (and increasingly old-girl) network that may be less impressed with a job applicant’s Ivy league pedigree.

This excerpt struck a chord with me for a number of reasons. First, many of the students I work with fall in the category of wanting or needing to study what this article refers to as "practical" subjects that will lead more logically to specific careers and jobs. And, while I agree that bigger public state schools often have those more specialized programs of study, I resent the implication that broader (perhaps liberal arts) degrees prepare students less well for those specific occupations (can you see my liberal arts education shining through yet??). Furthermore, I fear that statements like this only perpetuate the idea of a worthless liberal arts degree and allow employers to resist students with them regardless of how qualified or able they are. My second issue with this excerpt comes with the discussion of students "finding themselves" in college. To me, this quote seemed to imply that college as a time for personal exploration and development is a privilege reserved for the wealthy, or those students who don't actually have to worry about finding jobs after graduation. I have a number of reactions to this- first, I kind of understand it because I do remember feeling during much of my 4 years of liberal arts education that there was no direct applicable point to what we were doing. We spent a lot of time talking, arguing, and surrounding ourselves with smart, like minded people. I often found myself frustrated with the feeling that we weren't actually doing anything and that often felt like a privilege associated with attending an elite college. However, I also think this points out a very unsettling quality of the social class system of this country: not only do we find ourselves separated by the amount of money we have, the people we know, and the resources available to us- we are also permitted different ways of spending our time, learning, and even thinking. This seems to imply that privileged students are allowed, if not expected, to lounge their way through college- searching for themselves and thinking lofty thoughts, while their 'disadvantaged' peers have no time for such things and must instead focus on gaining specific marketable skills so that they can enter the job market quickly and efficiently.

All in all, I find some of the implications of this article unsettling, even if I feel that the general questions raised in it are good ones. However, I worry about what all of this means for the students I serve and the organization that I represent

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