For decades, attending college has been the sole recipe for social and economic mobility offered up by Republicans and Democrats alike. But the 2016 election revealed the limits of "college for all." For one, only one-third of Americans actually have bachelors degrees, as Joan Williams points out in her new book, The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Williams, a Distinguished Professor of Law, UC Hastings Foundation Chair, and the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law, argues that higher education has become a way for professional elites to "reproduce" and transfer class status.
In the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast, AlterNet education editor Jennifer Berkshire and co-host Jack Schneider talk to Williams about college, class cluelessness and why it may finally be time for Democrats to come up with another answer to income inequality and stagnant wages besides "go to college."
The following is an edited transcript.
Have You Heard: You note in your book that many professional elites occupy such a bubble that they rarely encounter people who haven't gone to college.
Joan Williams: That's right. When I would point out that statistic, that only one-third of Americans have bachelors degrees, there were people who literally didn't agree with me. They just said that has to be wrong. People who have to have gone to college for generations and all of their friends have graduated from college, they were just completely dumb with disbelief.
But there are a lot of very concrete reasons why working-class kids, by which I mean the true middle class, might not want to go to college. It's economically very risky to go to college right now it's very expensive and a lot of people end up starting college and then paying many thousands of dollars in college debt on the wages of a high school graduate because they don't complete college and middle-working-class kids are very well aware of that. It's also literally harder for them to get into college with the same credentials than it is for kids of professional classes.
Have You Heard: There's a chapter in the book about why working-class Americans don't just move to where the jobs are. But you could ask a similar question about college: if the key to social and economic mobility is to go to an elite school, why don't working-class kids just do that?
JW: The children of elites are trained for college intensively from a very small age. And the assumption within the family is that, of course you love your parents, but you're going to travel hundreds or thousands of miles away to go to college. That is not the assumption in what's called the working class but is really the middle class. There the assumption is that you will remain in your parents clique networks. These are small, rooted, geographically based networks, and the assumption is that you'll help each other with child and elder care and home repairs and so on. And using these small clique networks composed of family and close friends basically protects people from their disadvantaged place in the market. For example, they don't have to pay to buy the kind of childcare that you could buy for four dollars an hour. Instead grandma takes care of the kids.