This summer, the usual slew of college-themed articles came across my screen, discussing everything from Greek life and party culture to the real economic value of college today. One in particular stood out to me—an article in the Atlantic proclaiming that “Rich Kids Study English,” which was interestingly published in the Business section rather than Education.
This new data that revealed a correlation between parents’ income and students’ chosen major was reported on by a number of sources, so I was already aware of this seemingly logical trend. However, while this argument is well-established and has data to support it, I had to question what these sources were trying to say about low-income students and their educational and lifestyle choices.
Although there has been a lot of positive, praising coverage of the successes of low-income college students (including an excellent piece on Vassar’s own Transitions program), this sort of assumption is anything but complimentary.
Many of the claims are expected, especially like the ones made in the following excerpt from an article in USA Today: “[r]isks are also taken into consideration. Weeden says students with lower economic statuses tend to major in subjects with more job availabilities. ‘Majoring in something like performing arts or something in the humanities may be riskier in terms of job opportunities,’ says Weeden. ‘At least students think that it’s riskier in terms of later job opportunities and because of that, it’s going to be the students who have a financial cushion to fall back on if they don’t immediately have a job who are going to be more likely to choose those particular majors’” (USA Today, “Link found between student’s chosen major, parents’ income,” 07.23.2015).
Given the exceptional opportunity of attending college, it is not surprising that low-income students want to make the most of it and have the ability to earn the most that they can after graduation. A cost benefit analysis shows the need to use college in the best ways possible for low-income students.
The Atlantic plainly states, “Kids from lower-income families tend toward ‘useful’ majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts. The explanation is fairly intuitive. ‘It’s consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment…’” (The Atlantic, “Rich Kids Study English,” 07.06.2015).
While it is remarkable and noteworthy that these students are pursuing degrees in such in-demand fields, it appears that these students have very little agency in their educational choices because of their socioeconomic status, and are thereby “forced” to study something “useful.”
It is true, of course, that low-income students have a lot more to lose if they are met with un- or under-employment, especially if they have loans to pay off, and one cannot deny the economic benefits of in-demand majors. However, the points made in these pieces wrongfully suggest that certain majors are off-limits to anyone but the wealthy, creating yet another boundary in addition to the hurdle of attending college in the first place.
This type of generalization is not productive, as it perpetuates the idea that, for these students, college is not about the wonders of learning and discovery. It instead paints a very utilitarian image of the meaning of college for a good portion of college students.
For them, education hardly becomes more meaningful than the high school experience of simply following a path of pre-selected courses in order to graduate, except this time they are paying steep amounts for courses and required materials.
This is where the conflict of interest versus utility becomes treacherous. If a student has thousands of dollars in loans and is working several jobs to support themselves and/or others, in addition to attending classes that they are struggling or disinterested in, dropping out will seem like the only viable option after endless semesters of stressful workloads with little initial payoff.
Sticking out two, four, or (more likely) six years of something so expensive and time consuming is a feat, as only 24% of public 4-year and 44% of private 4-year students receiving a Pell Grant (granted to students with a household income of less than $20,000) graduate in four years (National Center for Education Statistics, “Analysis by the Council of Independent Colleges,” 04.09).
It is also important to take into account that many low-income students have to take (and pay for) remedial courses before even beginning their major, which alone is expensive and discouragingly tedious.
If a student is struggling in a program that does not match their skill set or interests but that they feel they have to pursue, then all of these factors can lead to dropping out rather than obtaining that “useful” degree, or any degree at all. This leads lower-income students back into a trend of maintaining their socio-economic status. This on top of their “wasted” few years at college that amounted to nothing due to the overwhelming workload they had to take on.
Ultimately, dropping out is the least-desirable outcome for students who have the ability to succeed in college, as the financial implications can be huge.
A Slate article examining the gap in graduation rates based on socioeconomic class says, “It’s not so much that [bright, low-income students] don’t attend college—only 12.4 percent skip higher ed entirely. The problem is that most don’t finish, or settle for less than a bachelor’s degree, which of course limits their earning power later in life” (Slate, “Smart Poor Kids Are Less Likely to Graduate From College Than Middling Rich Kids,” 06.02.2015).
These students are motivated to reap the benefits of a college education, but a number of stumbling blocks often accumulate until the student can no longer justify or fund the endeavor, eventually rendering all of the initial hard work moot.
By assuming and asserting that low-income students “normally” study certain majors and that others are off-limits because of their class background, they can be dissuaded from pursuing a degree that they excel in and eventually drop out altogether if their chosen major proves unfit for them. The assertion actually forces lower-income students to subliminally reduce their college experiences.
While the data presented in these recent articles is irrefutable, the way it is repeatedly framed is unhelpful and even dangerous to low-income college students. These arguments fail to help low-income college students succeed in higher education, instead giving them negative ideas about their self-worth and future prospects.
These students have likely been confined by their financial situation more often than not, and they should be recognized for their commitment to their education and for the majors that they choose regardless of their practicality. They shouldn’t be placed into boxes.
By nature and learned experience, these students are assiduous and extremely capable of planning ahead, being independent, considering consequences and overcoming obstacles. It is highly likely that a student from such a background would be able to navigate a tough job market with any degree because they are already adept at searching for opportunity and resources where others may not think to look. They should not be viewed as confined by their background, but as empowered individuals capable of excelling regardless of their college major. Studies should work to reflect more positive outcomes rather than perpetuating the possible negative ramifications of pursuing higher education.