Amid increasing inequality and plummeting social mobility, expanding access to higher education has become an urgent policy issue in the United States. Gone are the days when a high school degree and a job on the assembly line could support a family. Because the global economy rewards workers with college degrees and blue-collar jobs have become harder to find, graduating from college has become the only pathway to a secure middle class life.

Current debates about inequality often portray higher education as the great equalizer. But how can we promote college enrollment and completion among disadvantaged students? Many solutions, such as tuition tax credits and federally-guaranteed student loans, have focused on making college more affordable. To be sure, loans have helped make university enrollment possible for tens of millions of Americans. Yet the enrollment gap between the wealthiest and poorest students in the U.S. doesn’t seem to be closing.

As we explain in a recent paper, working-class students who aspire to enroll in university face many obstacles. Now more than ever, successfully navigating the admissions process requires a specific blend of cultural and social capital that we call “savvy.” Given the prevailing social and economic conditions in the U.S., a relative lack of savvy leaves the working class ill-equipped to use higher education to their advantage.

The Emergence of “Savvy”

We did 120 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with three generations of Americans: young adults in their college-going years, their parents, and older adults who completed high school in 1959. We asked respondents to walk us through their expectations and experiences pertaining to higher education, including steps they took to prepare and position themselves for college. When we analysed the results by social class, we found remarkable contrasts.

Class advantages played an important role in determining whether parents and students were able to turn their aspirations into realities. Middle-class parents were, on the whole, ready to devote significant amounts of money and time to arming their kids to compete for seats in elite universities. In doing so, they capitalised on highly valuable social ties with peers and educators. And they used professionals from the multi-billion-dollar test-preparation industry. They also engaged in farsighted financial planning.

Working-class families, however, were shut out of the process, with comparatively little sense of how to go about applying to and paying for university. Many of the interviewees’ stories were marked by a heartbreaking combination of big dreams and minimal planning. Their ideas on how to obtain and sustain funding for higher education were often wrong. In the middle-class milieu, information on colleges was easy to come by, naturally flowing from peer to peer; in the working-class world, the desire to gain a purchase on the American Dream by attending college was extremely strong, but there were few resources available to help bring it about.

Class Struggle at the Firehouse

Miles, a firefighter’s son, sought to follow in his dad’s footsteps, but knew that public-sector cutbacks would make this career path an uphill one. He had a vague idea that a college degree would make him more competitive: “If you’ve got more [certifications] than other people, it makes it a little better.” However, just weeks before the fall semester began, he had not yet enrolled in community college and seemed overwhelmed by the prospect: “The most stress I’ve ever felt really is just going into college and getting out of the house. Just figuring out who I’m going to be.”

Earl, a successful businessman living on the other side of town, envisioned a much gentler career path for his son, Andrew, who also wanted to be a firefighter. Earl described how he used connections to secure his son an unpaid internship at the local fire station. He believed a business degree from a four-year college would open up eventual white-collar opportunities for Andrew: “Part of it is more than just fighting fires. There is administration that goes along with it.”

Post-War Savvy

Of course, this is not entirely a new story. The savvy gap has long been a serious impediment to class mobility in the United States. The stories told by interviewees from the class of 1959 revealed how much has changed since the boom after WWII. Savvy has retreated into the private sphere, where it is available only for purchase at a high price.

Don’s working-class parents “didn’t have a clue” about college. But the family’s strong social ties within their Lutheran community negated this lack of savvy: As Don neared high school graduation, a local minister made an introduction for him to the Lutheran university that became his alma mater.

As a black woman growing up in the 1950s, Betty had great difficulties in achieving her dream of attending college. In her case, help came from a white woman whose house she helped to clean after school. The employer successfully lobbied Betty’s high-school principal to take Betty and two other black students to visit a nearby college. Betty applied and was awarded a modest scholarship, which began her long career working in education.

The contrast between these post-war stories and the plight of working-class people today is striking. Contemporary working-class families rarely receive the sort of assistance from influential outsiders that facilitated enrollment for Don and Betty more than 50 years ago. Today’s working-class kids are much more likely to live in class-segregated communities than their mid-20th-century counterparts. This change coincided with the privatization of family life, in which responsibility for the younger generation shifted away from the community and the state and onto individual parents. Knowledge about higher education once available in the community now exists only in private networks and markets.

At the same time, education in the United States has reached an unprecedented level of complexity. As the system becomes more elaborate, it demands ever more savvy from students and parents, and less fortunate families fall even further behind.

The For-Profit Problem

The notion of a college education—any college education—as something that everyone should have access to (for a price) has fueled the rise of the for-profit college industry in the U.S. It is estimated that these schools enroll 10 percent of U.S. college students. They draw as much as $33 billion in federal financial aid every year. The sector has become notorious for dishonest sales practices designed to lure vulnerable students into inappropriate, and in some cases unaccredited, degree programs. The U.S. Department of Education reports that nearly half of student loan defaulters come from for-profit colleges.

To address inequality in higher education, policymakers could start by cracking down on for-profits that cynically exploit the savvy gap. But of course the root causes need attention as well. Broadening disadvantaged students’ access to university education through aggressive class-based affirmative action is an important piece of the puzzle, but not a solution in itself. Restoring savvy to the public sphere, where children from all backgrounds can benefit from it, should be an urgent goal.

It may be time to re-examine the usefulness of the “college-for-all” mentality. In past generations, widespread availability of stable blue-collar jobs paying a living wage made middle-class lifestyles attainable for many who lacked a university degree. Basic measures such as raising the minimum wage could help bring back those desirable working-class life options. As it stands, the goal of universal college enrollment within a context of advancing privatization threatens to undercut both democratic principles and economic stability.

This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2014.

Image credit:   John Walker via flickr

About the Authors

Avatar photo
INSEAD Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour

Kaisa Snellman is Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD. Kaisa's main teaching and research interests are in the areas of economic sociology, culture, organisations, social capital, and social networks. Her current work examines increasing economic and social inequality in the United States and the consequences of these trends for social mobility. In particular, she interested in the role of social networks and neighborhoods in producing or maintaining inequality. Her recent work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focuses on increasing health inequalities in the United States. Her previous work has examined the changing role of knowledge production in the economy, and the “Americanisation” of corporate governance practices in Europe. Her research on the diffusion of the shareholder model in Finland received the Louis R. Pondy Best Dissertation Award from the Organization and Management Theory Division of the Academy of Management in 2012. She was also a finalist for the William H. Newman Award from the Academy of Management. Kaisa’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The LA Times, Forbes, Businessweek, and The Huffington Post, among others. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Stanford University, an MA in Sociology from Stanford University, and an MSc degree in Economics from Swedish School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland. Kaisa blogs about economic inequality and culture at Harvard Business Review.

Avatar photo
Asst Professor of Sociology, Bucknell University

Jennifer M. Silva, Asst Professor of Sociology, Bucknell University