America’s Real Class System

After writing my last blog post, I find myself more and more intrigued by the “every American should go to college—at least for one year,” and the “America must lead the world in per-capita college graduates by 2020” keynotes of President Obama’s higher-education agenda. As I’ve noted, there is more to his plan than that, particularly steps to address the massive and growing student-loan debt problem. But the centerpiece of his planned program is most fascinating because of its psychological implications. Rightly or wrongly, it implies that there is not only a socioeconomic (as distinct from the well documented economic), and possibly a social boundary that separates those who attend college from those who do not. How this came to be is a significant problem, I think, and is explored in depth in Evan Watkins’ excellent book, Class Degrees (2008), but is worth a few words here.

Admittedly these assumptions are nested in the rhetoric of a presidential campaign and may not reflect Obama’s real beliefs. As stated, it sounds vaguely like a jingoistic “American first in everything” crowd-pleasing tactic. Likewise, Rick Santorum may not really mean to insult the President when he characterizes Obama’s position that everyone should go to college (actually not his position exactly) as snobbery. Neither positions would likely translate into policy were Santorum elected or Obama re-elected.

But the stump speeches and white papers don’t address the divide that I detect. It’s become a cliché that a college degree is today’s equivalent of yesterday’s high-school diploma, but when did a college degree connote not just that a person had chosen one life path over another, but that had made a choice that somehow made him or her socially superior to an auto mechanic or a plumber? I suspect two sources. As I’ve said before, I believe the G.I. Bill that was signed into law in 1944 and its successor, the G.I. bill for veterans of the Korean conflict, not only boosted college enrollments for students returning from those wars, but also created a geometric effect: the beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill naturally expected that their children would attend college just as they had done. Hence, America has 18-million students enrolled in college, and college is almost perceived as an entitlement (though, as my previous posts suggest, it can’t survive as one).

A second source: U.S. News and World Report. The magazine began ranking America’s colleges and universities in 1983, and since then the country’s universities have been in the grip of a pseudo-empirical rankings system that purports to assert the relative prestige of America’s colleges and universities. This ranking scheme creates a prestige hierarchy in higher education that never existed before (of course, everyone knew that the Ivys, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, the Seven Sisters, and a few Northeastern liberal-arts colleges constituted the ranks of prestige). Now everyone who attends a traditional college, as distinct from a for-profit or a community college, participates in that near-universal ranking scheme.

I can’t help but think that this mentality devolves to the attitudes of high-school students. I wonder how old our children have to be before they feel the pressure of what I’ve previously called “prestige and prestige envy.” It’s in the end an unfathomable problem. We’re a weird people: we love prestige so we want to be the best in everything, including higher education and per-capita college graduation rates. That, plus our country’s infatuation with prestige explains Obama’s political stance. At the same time—and no one captured this better than Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life—Americans just don’t want to pay for higher education, and they only grudgingly pay for K-12 education. Americans are just skeptical that formal education will get them anywhere—not an unreasonable suspicion in the current economy.

The real divide, though, needs to be the one between college grads and high-school grads. It’s certainly unreasonable to think of America as a classless society: the many demonstrations on the part of the 99 percent against the 1 percent are evidence of that. But we’ve lost sight of how that class divide applies in college. And we’ve lost sight of how valuable our young people who choose not to go to college, yet still find a way to be productive, can be. It’s time for us to rethink the relationship between academic credentials and real work ability, however we manage to measure it.

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