An article earlier this year in the Chronicle, “Should Working-Class People Get B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s?” struck a nerve with me.  Such a nerve, in fact, that six months later, I’m finally finishing the post I started about it.

The article co-authors, Briallen Hopper and Johanna Hopper, are sisters who took different career paths from their working-class background. Briallen, who holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Princeton, is a lecturer at Yale.  She “believes higher education is valuable beyond the price, and she hopes it will even prove a good investment someday, if the economy improves.” Johanna is a bakery worker who became disenchanted with higher education and stopped attending.  She is “determined to seek success and self-worth outside of the enormously expensive educational institutions that too often disregard the significant personal sacrifices students make to attend them.”

I’m more Briallen than Johanna, but I understand both perspectives. Both of my parents came from working-class backgrounds, holding factory jobs when I was younger. By the time I was ten, my father had taken a government-related job, and a few years later, my mother began working in retail. We were never dirt-poor, but we were certainly at the lower end of the middle class.

One of the things my parents always emphasized was getting an education–not just a high school degree, but a college degree. (My mother has a high school degree, and my father earned a number of college credits from a local Bible college in his late 20s-early 30s.) They made it clear that forgoing college was not a viable option for me if I wanted a better life. It took a year of full-time work after graduating high school to completely convince me that my parents knew best.

Paying for college was largely dependent on two income sources: scholarships and work. My parents contributed a set amount toward tuition, provided an automobile, and gave small gifts as they could, but academic scholarships paid for most of my tuition and fees. My job (or, as was often the case, jobs) paid for my housing, food, and other sundries. Not until my senior year did I have to take out a loan, and that was only to pay for summer classes so I could graduate a semester early and enter grad school.

I can understand Johanna’s disenchantment, especially given her ignorance of the higher ed infrastructure. I was similarly ignorant. Initially, I did what I was told when it came to taking classes and other academic plans because I didn’t know any better. Thankfully, my passive rebellion helped me early on to understand that the career path that I had chosen (secondary education) was going to make for a miserable life. I had professors who mentored me and helped me figure out my future, as well as my life.

2 thoughts on “The Working Class and Higher Education, Pt. 1

  1. Dear Mark, I am really glad that you are raising this concern. Because it is increasingly expensive to get a higher education, fewer working class people are entering the humanities. How can we study history with integrity, if people with lower class experience aren’t an integral and representative part of the conversation?

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