What is the relationship between education and socioeconomic class position? Do you think that education in this country promotes upward socioeconomic mobility or reproduces existing socioeconomic class positions? What evidence would you need to support either of these arguments? Have you found your own orientations changed or reinforced through your educational experiences? In what ways?
There really is no question that socioeconomic status and quality of education often go hand-in-hand. While some of the country’s finest universities, particularly Harvard, provide a large number of scholarships to students from disadvantaged backgrounds but who achieved well in elementary and high school, it is those latter stages of the educational process where those disadvantages prove most revealing. College can be a great equalizer, but the years leading up to college usually set the stage for what kinds of opportunities children have during their later years.
In the worst cases, inner-city schools in large and desperately poor communities, the quality of education can range from mediocre to abysmal. While public schools receive taxpayer-funded financial resources that enable them to function, the qualitative gap between inner-city schools in Flint, Michigan or sections of Philadelphia on the one hand and the private parochial schools of New England and Northern California on the other hand is almost as wide as that between the socioeconomic status of the United States and Haiti. Finding quality teachers willing to live and teach in the more depressed communities of the nation is a perpetual challenge, and the economic and social conditions of those communities too often perpetuates a cycle of despair that prevents progress. Furthermore, while colleges can provide equal opportunities for all socioeconomic classes, the exorbitant costs of college educations is a major, virtually insurmountable obstacle to all but the most academically gifted who qualify for scholarships and stipends. Even state universities, for many years the most affordable option for residents of those states, are no longer as inexpensive as they used to be relative to private universities. In short, the student bodies at Phillips Exeter, Andover, and Sidwell Friends unquestionably enjoy greater opportunities than do those at Shannon County, South Dakota, Brownsville Independent in Texas, and P.S. 106 in Queens, New York. As one study, the link to which is provided below, concluded:
“There are many factors preventing education from serving this role as "the great equalizer." Schools serving low-income students receive fewer resources, face greater difficulties attracting qualified teachers, face many more challenges in addressing student's needs, and receive less support from parents. This inequality of school quality is widely recognized.
But the inequalities facing children before they enter school are less publicized. We should expect schools to increase achievement for all students, regardless of race, income, class, and prior achievement. But it is unreasonable to expect schools to completely eliminate any large pre-existing inequalities soon after children first enter the education system, especially if those schools are under-funded and over-challenged.” [Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam, Inequality at the Starting Gate: Social Background Differences in Achievement as Children Begin School, November 25, 2002]
Once admitted to college or university, and funding issues aside, whether an individual student achieves a sense of upward mobility is largely a product of that student’s academic field of study and effort. A student who pursues a degree in social work, however admirable, knows going-in that he or she is not going to be entering a financially lucrative field. Those studying biology with an eye towards medical school, or those with ambitions of pursuing legal studies understand that their opportunities for advances up the socioeconomic ladder are vastly greater than for some other majors. A film studies major could ultimately prove highly lucrative and culturally-enlightening, but the average cinema major spends many years – if he or she is fortunate – working his or her way up the corporate structure, beginning with a series of low-paying jobs.
Prior academic history can prove a formidable obstacle for college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. As noted, however, once admitted, and assuming financial aid is provided, the opportunities for socioeconomic advancement exist.
Personally, decisions regarding choices of schools and fields of study resulted in a more mentally satisfying career than originally anticipated. As there was no expectation of great wealth, there were no disappointments in that regard; a useful, productive career that paid the bills and allowed for a decent quality of life was sufficient.