Should Working-Class People Get B.A.'s and Ph.D.'s?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 29, 2012

We are sisters from a working-class family: Our dad works in construction, and our mom is a licensed practical nurse with a GED. We are equally bookish and academically inclined, but we represent opposite ends of the educational spectrum.

Briallen has a Ph.D. from Princeton University and is a lecturer in the English department at Yale University. Johanna is a high-school graduate working full time at a bakery for slightly above minimum wage.

Recently, after reading Thomas B. Edsall's piece on "The Reproduction of Privilege" in The New York Times, we got into a lively and sometimes painful conversation about why academically qualified, working-class Americans might choose not to go to college, and about how the system sometimes fails them even when they do manage to go.

Edsall argues that college is no longer the force for class mobility that it used to be, and he laments that working-class students are less and less likely to pursue a B.A. We agree with a lot of what he says, but we believe he fails to fully explain why people like us might consciously choose not to get B.A.'s, and why we sometimes pay a high price when we do.

For both of us, decisions about education have been limited and complicated by our class status.

Briallen worked in child care and food service for a while after high school, went to community college, and was accepted to a selective four-year college but was not offered enough financial aid to go. She finally graduated from a local college with the help of Pell Grants and a lot of debt. She can't imagine her life without higher education, but as a non-tenure-track academic in a tough job market, she has limited job security, and she owes more than $800 a month in student-loan payments. Her student debt makes it impossible for her to save money or start a family anytime soon, and she is entering her mid-30s.

Johanna is 20. She was an honor student at her Jesuit prep school and was considered to be obvious "college material" by her teachers, but she graduated after the 2008 crash and couldn't count on getting a job after college that would enable her to make student-loan payments. She got into many good institutions, including a nationally ranked private research university (which gave her a $25,000-a-year merit scholarship), a nationally ranked liberal-arts college (which nearly matched that offer), and the flagship public university in her state. But she would still have needed to take out between $50,000 to $100,000 in loans to go to any of them.

Johanna was wary of graduating with substantial debt and no family safety net, so she took a year off to work and save money and try applying to college again. Her financial-aid offers the next year were no better. She ended up taking classes at the local satellite campus of a state university while living at home and working long hours at a salon to pay her own way.

But after a couple of quarters she discovered that, because of the poor academic advising she had received, none of the introductory courses she had taken were actually required for her degree. Her AP credits from high school should have qualified her to start as a sophomore, but she was mistakenly placed in freshman-level courses.

After learning that she'd spent almost all of her hard-earned savings on classes she was not even required to take, Johanna lost her faith in the wisdom of investing in higher education. She left school and is now working full time for $13,000 a year. She's proudly debt-free and self-supporting, and in her limited free time she is pursuing reading, writing, and the free or cheap cultural and educational opportunities available to her.

Johanna hasn't ruled out college someday, but even community college would require money, time, and faith in the system that she doesn't yet have. Too many of her college-educated friends are living off of family and food stamps. She's 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.

We both agree that there are almost insurmountable obstacles to higher education for people like us, but we disagree about whether college is a good or defensible option in those circumstances.

Briallen's life as a teacher and scholar would have been impossible without her expensive education, and she can't help believing in its worth. For five years she participated in outreach programs at Princeton and Yale, trying to help get underrepresented students into college and graduate school.

And even as she sells her books and clothes to make her student-loan payments, she still periodically tries to talk Johanna into going back to college. She believes higher education is valuable beyond the price, and she hopes it will even prove a good investment someday, if the economy improves.

Meanwhile Johanna believes that since the cost of college has become potentially ruinous for many qualified students, the choice not to go ought to be respected, and even encouraged, not lamented.

And she resists the pressure to define her life by college or its absence. As she says: "We all know that a B.A. can qualify you for an enormous number of valuable jobs that may otherwise be unavailable to you. However, it is not only a B.A. that can qualify you for a meaningful life. Thanks to the stigma, it actually took me more than a year to realize that I was not a 'college dropout.' I was a 19-year-old, I was a salon receptionist, I was frugal, I was changing careers, I was a piano player, I was a little sister, and a daughter, and reader—I was so many things, yet the only label that stuck to me was 'college dropout.' You hear it said so often, you forget to question it. So a person didn't go to college. Well. What did they do instead?"

Although we both continue to struggle with the stressful economic implications of our different education levels, we are proud of each other and of our very different choices. We just wish we'd been given the opportunity to make them more freely.

Briallen Hopper is a lecturer in the English department at Yale University and blogs for the Huffington Post at Johanna Hopper works full time at a bakery and blogs at