Does Blanket 'Don't Go to Graduate School!' Advice Ignore Race and Reality?

Brian Taylor

April 15, 2013

When I decided to return to graduate school, I was about as devoid of prestige as one can be. I was old; I was from a no-name undergraduate university (worse, maybe, an HBCU!); I lacked social capital (my undergraduate performance was fine but not stellar); and I did not know the difference between sociology and anthropology.

Fortunately, I grew up with a library card and a mother who made it seem like the passport to everything I would ever need to know in life. My motto is: If they've written a book about it, I can likely figure it out.

So that's where I started. I went to the library and the bookstore (remember those?), and I spent months poring over everything written about academia and graduate school. Along the way I saw lots of stories like this one recently published by Slate. It's on the far right extreme of the "don't go!" advice market, but it is indicative of what that advice entails. It's some combination of an assessment of the academic labor market, the odds of getting a tenure-track appointment, the high cost of graduate school, and the emotional toil.

That advice is not wrong.

It is, however, a bit disingenuous about the implicit comparison embedded in the advice. Namely, that one can do better than a career in academe.

But what if one can't do better? Like me, five years ago?

That is the case for many black students. I will try to unpack the Pandora's box of structural and social processes that make it different. I do this not to judge advice that isn't exactly wrong. Instead, I offer this perspective in hopes that we might consider how the position of people on the receiving end of well-meaning (usually) advice differs from our own.

It's hard out here for a pimp. As the saying goes, when white America catches a cold, black America already has the flu.

The labor market has always been inhospitable to black labor. That has changed some, primarily due to social policy. But, as Sharon Collins points out in her carefully crafted empirical analysis of black social-class mobility, the changes that wrought the growth of the black middle class were fragile (indeed we've already witnessed their end) and primarily driven by public-sector hiring. There are lots of reasons for that. An important one to remember here is that the public sector is most sensitive to political mandates. The private sector is significantly less so. As a result, black people have been overrepresented in bureaucracies because bureaucracies are most sensitive to affirmative-action policies.

That's not changed much. That's why Obama's reduction of the public sector as the private sector picked up in hiring over the past three years has been devastating for black workers. We work in the public sector because equal-opportunity laws counteract biases in hiring that make a white felon more likely to be hired than a black applicant with no criminal history. We stay in bureaucracies because those same equal-opportunity laws require that promotion criteria be explicit, published, and uniformly applied regardless of sex, race, gender, etc., which counteracts the documented bias that transmutable, opaque "discretion" produces.

Credentialism is often rewarded in bureaucracies because it is a simple, relatively unambiguous designation of "qualified" that conforms to bureaucratic desires to remove discretion from decision-making. Ergo, credentialism—literally here just meaning the process of formalizing knowledge or qualifications by attaching it to some kind of certificate or degree—can be very important to black folks who are disproportionately hired by, employed in, and promoted according to the standards of bureaucracies, which reward having a credential.

That makes the decision to attend graduate school a lot less stupid than it is often characterized by advice gurus.

I see this in my interviews with students, many of whom are black, from for-profit institutions. Those students are not crazy when they intuit that they "need some letters behind [their] name," a common refrain in my research data. They are actually pretty accurately assessing the economic and social landscape in which they are embedded.

Plainly put, black folks need credentials because without them our "ghetto" names get our résumés trashed, our clean criminal records lose out to whites with felony convictions, and discretion works against our type of social capital (and weak ties and closure of information) to amount to a social reality that looks and feels a lot like statistical discrimination.

A graduate degree can also signal that you are not "that kind of black person." It can say that not only, ideally, do you have some special skills but that you won't go all Sapphire in a department meeting or steal someone's hubcaps out of the company parking lot, or whatever the en vogue, deeply seated fear is that motivates implicit discrimination in hiring decisions these days. We are not crazy when we think we need more education for the privilege of being underemployed.

We do.

But academia is different. Well, it sure is, but the difference is likely not as acute or meaningful for some of us as it is for others.

Academia may not be a traditional bureaucracy, but we should remember that public colleges are embedded in state governments. It is not totally beyond the realm of possibility, then, that black students should engage with some sectors of higher education similarly to how we have engaged with hiring at the post office, for example. That is to say, credentialism is rewarded, and, thus, we should pursue it.

The nature of the rewards, however, seems to be what trips up a lot of this advice. Those missteps are rooted in fundamental, unexamined privilege.

It is difficult to be embedded in higher education today, particularly if you study it, and not be acutely aware that academic labor is changing and likely not for the better. Adjunct labor conditions are pretty deplorable: low pay, long hours, little prestige, no mobility. When we are in that predicament, we can forget that our crappy jobs can be someone else's upward mobility.

Part of our not understanding that, I suspect, is ideological. To recognize that crappy is relative is to undermine our own fragile, tenuous class consciousness. It is an old problem. Unions and social movements have historically encountered similar issues in attempts to unite black, brown, and white labor through their shared position in the class structure. The problems arise when your shared position isn't exactly shared.

Focusing so narrowly on class to the exclusion of structural racial projects can put you in this quagmire. Black poverty is not the same as white poverty. That's not the fault of white poor people but is a function of a complex mix of interrelated social constructs, organizational processes, politics, history, and probably magic. It's complicated. It is also inconvenient, particularly when you really want and need people to focus on deplorable class conditions. So sometimes we like to ignore differences. We do so to our peril.

When we obscure those meaningful differences we end up counseling black students considering graduate school that it is a waste of time and money. We do that because our class consciousness says this whole pyramid hierarchy is a scheme and those at the bottom are losing.

The thing with losing is there's always some construct of what constitutes "winning." The dominant construct of winning is rooted in privilege and biases.

Winning is different for different folks. I think of the mobility studies that followed Raymond Boudon's work, which I likely oversimplify when I call it a cross-sectional, longitudinal, empirical analysis that concludes that we're always from where we're from. Basically, if I get a master's degree that increases my labor value to $45,000 it can sound like a pittance to a person who went to graduate school and earns $50,000. Relative to others who earn more with less education, it is certainly troubling. However, if your parents didn't have their GEDs and you grew up helping your mom clean banks after hours, which was one of her three jobs, you have actually traveled quite a bit of social distance. That may not negate the structural differentiation in rewards relative to similarly educated white or Asian workers, but the relative difference among black workers can make the value of my graduate degree different than the value of yours.

Don't go! Unless ... Maybe too many people are going to graduate school, but not too many of all people are going to graduate school. I am suspicious of declarations of an institution being dead the minute I show up to it in my party dress. But I'm not a starry-eyed loon when it comes to the fissures of distress in the academic labor market and the pressures of rising student-loan debt.

They are there. They are real, and we should deal with those problems, but on the road to the revolution let us not forget that folks still have to live.

Let us not tell people who could stand to benefit the most from credentials—ones we have socially constructed, through racism, classism, and sexism, as more necessary for some people than others—that graduate school is a net negative because it is not.

Instead, let us consider a calculation of social distance, cost, aspiration, prestige, and returns on investment. Rather than a blanket default condemnation that is rooted in our own social position, experiences, and privilege, let us give students a patchwork quilt of tools to determine the graduate-school math for themselves.

Surely, an entry-level administrative job or low-status teaching job is not the life of the mind with summers off and adoring undergraduate groupies. But it can represent a legitimate career option for someone who is not choosing among hopeful tenure jobs at the Ivies but is instead hoping for a call back when her name is Lakeisha, or a job offer when she doesn't have high-status social connections, or for whom there is no implicit "better" career option out there just waiting for her to show up.

This is not an argument for the unilateral benefits of graduate school for black students. I assume that the students in question want to attend graduate school. I, too, caution against the excessive accrual of debt in pursuit of a degree. I wish the calculation of risk were universal. It would suggest something akin to social and economic parity. Absent that utopian reality, black students have to take into account qualitatively different considerations in their calculation of the risk, cost, and rewards of pursuing graduate education. Blanket "don't go" advice ignores that reality.

I am also talking to myself here. I check myself constantly on my assumptions that some prestigious option that might exist for me but not for others (and it may not even exist for me). I talk to my interview subjects or I go home for the holidays and I am reminded that as we are studying and advocating for structural change, real people have to navigate those structures every day as a matter of survival. If they should overcome the hurdles of an inauspicious low-status start in life, as I did, and discover that academic labor is even a thing that exists, let us not advise them to do something better when all empirical evidence suggests that for black qualified workers there often isn't a "better."

If you can't consider that before offering blanket "dont' go!" advice, please send your students to someone else, somewhere else.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Emory University. She studies inequality, education, and privatization. Her blog is, and her Twitter handle is @tressiemcphd.