[Paleopsych] NYT: Class Matters - Social Class and Education in the United States of America

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Class Matters - Social Class and Education in the United States of America

[Fifth of a series.]


    CHILHOWIE, Va. - One of the biggest decisions Andy Blevins has ever
    made, and one of the few he now regrets, never seemed like much of a
    decision at all. It just felt like the natural thing to do.

    In the summer of 1995, he was moving boxes of soup cans, paper towels
    and dog food across the floor of a supermarket warehouse, one of the
    biggest buildings here in southwest Virginia. The heat was brutal. The
    job had sounded impossible when he arrived fresh off his first year of
    college, looking to make some summer money, still a skinny teenager
    with sandy blond hair and a narrow, freckled face.

    But hard work done well was something he understood, even if he was
    the first college boy in his family. Soon he was making bonuses on top
    of his $6.75 an hour, more money than either of his parents made. His
    girlfriend was around, and so were his hometown buddies. Andy acted
    more outgoing with them, more relaxed. People in Chilhowie noticed

    It was just about the perfect summer. So the thought crossed his mind:
    maybe it did not have to end. Maybe he would take a break from college
    and keep working. He had been getting C's and D's, and college never
    felt like home, anyway.

    "I enjoyed working hard, getting the job done, getting a paycheck,"
    Mr. Blevins recalled. "I just knew I didn't want to quit."

    So he quit college instead, and with that, Andy Blevins joined one of
    the largest and fastest-growing groups of young adults in America. He
    became a college dropout, though nongraduate may be the more precise

    Many people like him plan to return to get their degrees, even if few
    actually do. Almost one in three Americans in their mid-20's now fall
    into this group, up from one in five in the late 1960's, when the
    Census Bureau began keeping such data. Most come from poor and
    working-class families.

    The phenomenon has been largely overlooked in the glare of positive
    news about the country's gains in education. Going to college has
    become the norm throughout most of the United States, even in many
    places where college was once considered an exotic destination -
    places like Chilhowie (pronounced chill-HOW-ee), an Appalachian hamlet
    with a simple brick downtown. At elite universities, classrooms are
    filled with women, blacks, Jews and Latinos, groups largely excluded
    two generations ago. The American system of higher learning seems to
    have become a great equalizer.

    In fact, though, colleges have come to reinforce many of the
    advantages of birth. On campuses that enroll poorer students,
    graduation rates are often low. And at institutions where nearly
    everyone graduates - small colleges like [3]Colgate, major state
    institutions like the [4]University of Colorado and elite private
    universities like [5]Stanford - more students today come from the top
    of the nation's income ladder than they did two decades ago.

    Only 41 percent of low-income students entering a four-year college
    managed to graduate within five years, the Department of Education
    found in a study last year, but 66 percent of high-income students
    did. That gap had grown over recent years. "We need to recognize that
    the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the
    widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the
    poor," [6]Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, said last
    year when announcing that Harvard would give full scholarships to all
    its lowest-income students. "And education is the most powerful weapon
    we have to address that problem."

    There is certainly much to celebrate about higher education today.
    Many more students from all classes are getting four-year degrees and
    reaping their benefits. But those broad gains mask the fact that poor
    and working-class students have nevertheless been falling behind; for
    them, not having a degree remains the norm.

    That loss of ground is all the more significant because a college
    education matters much more now than it once did. A bachelor's degree,
    not a year or two of courses, tends to determine a person's place in
    today's globalized, computerized economy. College graduates have
    received steady pay increases over the past two decades, while the pay
    of everyone else has risen little more than the rate of inflation.

    As a result, despite one of the great education explosions in modern
    history, economic mobility - moving from one income group to another
    over the course of a lifetime - has stopped rising, researchers say.
    Some recent studies suggest that it has declined over the last
    generation. [[7]Click here for more information on income mobility.]

    Put another way, children seem to be following the paths of their
    parents more than they once did. Grades and test scores, rather than
    privilege, determine success today, but that success is largely being
    passed down from one generation to the next. A nation that believes
    that everyone should have a fair shake finds itself with a kind of
    inherited meritocracy.

    In this system, the students at the best colleges may be diverse -
    male and female and of various colors, religions and hometowns - but
    they tend to share an upper-middle-class upbringing. An old joke that
    Harvard's idea of diversity is putting a rich kid from California in
    the same room as a rich kid from New York is truer today than ever;
    Harvard has more students from California than it did in years past
    and just as big a share of upper-income students.

    Students like these remain in college because they can hardly imagine
    doing otherwise. Their parents, understanding the importance of a
    bachelor's degree, spent hours reading to them, researching school
    districts and making it clear to them that they simply must graduate
    from college.

    Andy Blevins says that he too knows the importance of a degree, but
    that he did not while growing up, and not even in his year at
    [8]Radford University, 66 miles up the Interstate from Chilhowie. Ten
    years after trading college for the warehouse, Mr. Blevins, 29, spends
    his days at the same supermarket company. He has worked his way up to
    produce buyer, earning $35,000 a year with health benefits and a
    401(k) plan. He is on a path typical for someone who attended college
    without getting a four-year degree. Men in their early 40's in this
    category made an average of $42,000 in 2000. Those with a four-year
    degree made $65,000.

    Still boyish-looking but no longer rail thin, Mr. Blevins says he has
    many reasons to be happy. He lives with his wife, Karla, and their
    year-old son, Lucas, in a small blue-and-yellow house at the end of a
    cul-de-sac in the middle of a stunningly picturesque Appalachian
    valley. He plays golf with some of the same friends who made him want
    to stay around Chilhowie.

    But he does think about what might have been, about what he could be
    doing if he had the degree. As it is, he always feels as if he is on
    thin ice. Were he to lose his job, he says, everything could slip away
    with it. What kind of job could a guy without a college degree get?
    One night, while talking to his wife about his life, he used the word

    "Looking back, I wish I had gotten that degree," Mr. Blevins said in
    his soft-spoken lilt. "Four years seemed like a thousand years then.
    But I wish I would have just put in my four years."

    The Barriers

    Why so many low-income students fall from the college ranks is a
    question without a simple answer. Many high schools do a poor job of
    preparing teenagers for college. Many of the colleges where
    lower-income students tend to enroll have limited resources and offer
    a narrow range of majors, leaving some students disenchanted and
    unwilling to continue.

    Then there is the cost. Tuition bills scare some students from even
    applying and leave others with years of debt. To Mr. Blevins, like
    many other students of limited means, every week of going to classes
    seemed like another week of losing money - money that might have been
    made at a job.

    "The system makes a false promise to students," said [9]John T.
    Casteen III, the president of the [10]University of Virginia, himself
    the son of a Virginia shipyard worker.

    Colleges, Mr. Casteen said, present themselves as meritocracies in
    which academic ability and hard work are always rewarded. In fact, he
    said, many working-class students face obstacles they cannot overcome
    on their own.

    For much of his 15 years as Virginia's president, Mr. Casteen has
    focused on raising money and expanding the university, the most
    prestigious in the state. In the meantime, students with backgrounds
    like his have become ever scarcer on campus. The university's genteel
    nickname, the Cavaliers, and its aristocratic sword-crossed coat of
    arms seem appropriate today. No flagship state university has a
    smaller proportion of low-income students than Virginia. Just 8
    percent of undergraduates last year came from families in the bottom
    half of the income distribution, down from 11 percent a decade ago.

    That change sneaked up on him, Mr. Casteen said, and he has spent a
    good part of the last year trying to prevent it from becoming part of
    his legacy. Starting with next fall's freshman class, the university
    will charge no tuition and require no loans for students whose parents
    make less than twice the poverty level, or about $37,700 a year for a
    family of four. The university has also increased financial aid to
    middle-income students.

    To Mr. Casteen, these are steps to remove what he describes as
    "artificial barriers" to a college education placed in the way of
    otherwise deserving students. Doing so "is a fundamental obligation of
    a free culture," he said.

    But the deterrents to a degree can also be homegrown. Many low-income
    teenagers know few people who have made it through college. A majority
    of the nongraduates are young men, and some come from towns where the
    factory work ethic, to get working as soon as possible, remains
    strong, even if the factories themselves are vanishing. Whatever the
    reasons, college just does not feel normal.

    "You get there and you start to struggle," said Leanna Blevins, Andy's
    older sister, who did get a bachelor's degree and then went on to earn
    a Ph.D at Virginia studying the college experiences of poor students.
    "And at home your parents are trying to be supportive and say, 'Well,
    if you're not happy, if it's not right for you, come back home. It's
    O.K.' And they think they're doing the right thing. But they don't
    know that maybe what the student needs is to hear them say, 'Stick it
    out just one semester. You can do it. Just stay there. Come home on
    the weekend, but stick it out.' "

    Today, Ms. Blevins, petite and high-energy, is helping to start a new
    college a few hours' drive from Chilhowie for low-income students. Her
    brother said he had daydreamed about attending it and had talked to
    her about how he might return to college.

    For her part, Ms. Blevins says, she has daydreamed about having a life
    that would seem as natural as her brother's, a life in which she would
    not feel like an outsider in her hometown. Once, when a high-school
    teacher asked students to list their goals for the next decade, Ms.
    Blevins wrote, "having a college degree" and "not being married."

    "I think my family probably thinks I'm liberal," Ms. Blevins, who is
    now married, said with a laugh, "that I've just been educated too much
    and I'm gettin' above my raisin'."

    Her brother said that he just wanted more control over his life, not a
    new one. At a time when many people complain of scattered lives, Mr.
    Blevins can stand in one spot - his church parking lot, next to a
    graveyard - and take in much of his world. "That's my parents' house,"
    he said one day, pointing to a sliver of roof visible over a hill.
    "That's my uncle's trailer. My grandfather is buried here. I'll
    probably be buried here."

    Taking Class Into Account

    Opening up colleges to new kinds of students has generally meant one
    thing over the last generation: affirmative action. Intended to right
    the wrongs of years of exclusion, the programs have swelled the number
    of women, blacks and Latinos on campuses. But affirmative action was
    never supposed to address broad economic inequities, just the ones
    that stem from specific kinds of discrimination.

    That is now beginning to change. Like Virginia, a handful of other
    colleges are not only increasing financial aid but also promising to
    give weight to economic class in granting admissions. They say they
    want to make an effort to admit more low-income students, just as they
    now do for minorities and children of alumni.

    "The great colleges and universities were designed to provide for
    mobility, to seek out talent," said [11]Anthony W. Marx, president of
    [12]Amherst College. "If we are blind to the educational disadvantages
    associated with need, we will simply replicate these disadvantages
    while appearing to make decisions based on merit."

    With several populous states having already banned race-based
    preferences and the United States Supreme Court suggesting that it may
    outlaw such programs in a couple of decades, the future of affirmative
    action may well revolve around economics. Polls consistently show that
    programs based on class backgrounds have wider support than those
    based on race.

    The explosion in the number of nongraduates has also begun to get the
    attention of policy makers. This year, New York became one of a small
    group of states to tie college financing more closely to graduation
    rates, rewarding colleges more for moving students along than for
    simply admitting them. Nowhere is the stratification of education more
    vivid than here in Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson once tried, and
    failed, to set up the nation's first public high schools. At a modest
    high school in the Tidewater city of Portsmouth, not far from Mr.
    Casteen's boyhood home, a guidance office wall filled with college
    pennants does not include one from rarefied Virginia. The colleges
    whose pennants are up - [13]Old Dominion University and others that
    seem in the realm of the possible - have far lower graduation rates.

    Across the country, the upper middle class so dominates elite
    universities that high-income students, on average, actually get
    slightly more financial aid from colleges than low-income students do.
    These elite colleges are so expensive that even many high-income
    students receive large grants. In the early 1990's, by contrast,
    poorer students got 50 percent more aid on average than the wealthier
    ones, according to the [14]College Board, the organization that runs
    the SAT entrance exams.

    At the other end of the spectrum are community colleges, the two-year
    institutions that are intended to be feeders for four-year colleges.
    In nearly every one are tales of academic success against tremendous
    odds: a battered wife or a combat veteran or a laid-off worker on the
    way to a better life. But over all, community colleges tend to be
    places where dreams are put on hold.

    Most people who enroll say they plan to get a four-year degree
    eventually; few actually do. Full-time jobs, commutes and children or
    parents who need care often get in the way. One recent national survey
    found that about 75 percent of students enrolling in community
    colleges said they hoped to transfer to a four-year institution. But
    only 17 percent of those who had entered in the mid-1990's made the
    switch within five years, according to a separate study. The rest were
    out working or still studying toward the two-year degree.

    "We here in Virginia do a good job of getting them in," said Glenn
    Dubois, chancellor of the [15]Virginia Community College System and
    himself a community college graduate. "We have to get better in
    getting them out."

    'I Wear a Tie Every Day'

    College degree or not, Mr. Blevins has the kind of life that many
    Americans say they aspire to. He fills it with family, friends, church
    and a five-handicap golf game. He does not sit in traffic commuting to
    an office park. He does not talk wistfully of a relocated brother or
    best friend he sees only twice a year. He does not worry about who
    will care for his son while he works and his wife attends community
    college to become a physical therapist. His grandparents down the
    street watch Lucas, just as they took care of Andy and his two sisters
    when they were children. When Mr. Blevins comes home from work, it is
    his turn to play with Lucas, tossing him into the air and rolling
    around on the floor with him and a stuffed elephant.

    Mr. Blevins also sings in a quartet called the Gospel Gentlemen. One
    member is his brother-in-law; another lives on Mr. Blevins's street.
    In the long white van the group owns, they wend their way along
    mountain roads on their way to singing dates at local church
    functions, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes ribbing one another or
    talking about where to buy golf equipment.

    Inside the churches, the other singers often talk to the audience
    between songs, about God or a grandmother or what a song means to
    them. Mr. Blevins rarely does, but his shyness fades once he is back
    in the van with his friends.

    At the warehouse, he is usually the first to arrive, around 6:30 in
    the morning. The grandson of a coal miner, he takes pride, he says, in
    having moved up to become a supermarket buyer. He decides which
    bananas, grapes, onions and potatoes the company will sell and makes
    sure that there are always enough. Most people with his job have
    graduated from college.

    "I'm pretty fortunate to not have a degree but have a job where I wear
    a tie every day," he said.

    He worries about how long it will last, though, mindful of what
    happened to his father, Dwight, a decade ago. A high school graduate,
    Dwight Blevins was laid off from his own warehouse job and ended up
    with another one that paid less and offered a smaller pension.

    "A lot of places, they're not looking that you're trained in
    something," Andy Blevins said one evening, sitting on his back porch.
    "They just want you to have a degree."

    Figuring out how to get one is the core quandary facing the nation's
    college nongraduates. Many seem to want one. In a [16]New York Times
    poll, 43 percent of them called it essential to success, while 42
    percent of college graduates and 32 percent of high-school dropouts
    did. This in itself is a change from the days when "college boy" was
    an insult in many working-class neighborhoods. But once students take
    a break - the phrase that many use instead of drop out - the ideal can
    quickly give way to reality. Family and work can make a return to
    school seem even harder than finishing it in the first place.

    After dropping out of Radford, Andy Blevins enrolled part-time in a
    community college, trying to juggle work and studies. He lasted a
    year. From time to time in the decade since, he has thought about
    giving it another try. But then he has wondered if that would be
    crazy. He works every third Saturday, and his phone rings on Sundays
    when there is a problem with the supply of potatoes or apples. "It
    never ends," he said. "There's a never a lull."

    To spend more time with Lucas, Mr. Blevins has already cut back on his
    singing. If he took night classes, he said, when would he ever see his
    little boy? Anyway, he said, it would take years to get a degree
    part-time. To him, it is a tug of war between living in the present
    and sacrificing for the future.

    Few Breaks for the Needy

    The college admissions system often seems ruthlessly meritocratic.
    Yes, children of alumni still have an advantage. But many other
    pillars of the old system - the polite rejections of women or blacks,
    the spots reserved for graduates of Choate and Exeter - have crumbled.

    This was the meritocracy Mr. Casteen described when he greeted the
    parents of freshman in a University of Virginia lecture hall late last
    summer. Hailing from all 50 states and 52 foreign countries, the
    students were more intelligent and better prepared than he and his
    classmates had been, he told the parents in his quiet, deep voice. The
    class included 17 students with a perfect SAT score.

    If anything, children of privilege think that the system has moved so
    far from its old-boy history that they are now at a disadvantage when
    they apply, because colleges are trying to diversify their student
    rolls. To get into a good college, the sons and daughters of the upper
    middle class often talk of needing a higher SAT score than, say, an
    applicant who grew up on a farm, in a ghetto or in a factory town.
    Some state legislators from Northern Virginia's affluent suburbs have
    argued that this is a form of geographic discrimination and have
    quixotically proposed bills to outlaw it.

    But the conventional wisdom is not quite right. The elite colleges
    have not been giving much of a break to the low-income students who
    apply. When [17]William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton,
    looked at admissions records recently, he found that if test scores
    were equal a low-income student had no better chance than a
    high-income one of getting into a group of 19 colleges, including
    [18]Harvard, [19]Yale, [20]Princeton, [21]Williams and [22]Virginia.
    Athletes, legacy applicants and minority students all got in with
    lower scores on average. Poorer students did not.

    The findings befuddled many administrators, who insist that admissions
    officers have tried to give poorer applicants a leg up. To emphasize
    the point, Virginia announced this spring that it was changing its
    admissions policy from "need blind" - a term long used to assure
    applicants that they would not be punished for seeking financial aid -
    to "need conscious." Administrators at Amherst and Harvard have also
    recently said that they would redouble their efforts to take into
    account the obstacles students have overcome.

    "The same score reflects more ability when you come from a less
    fortunate background," Mr. Summers, the president of Harvard, said.
    "You haven't had a chance to take the test-prep course. You went to a
    school that didn't do as good a job coaching you for the test. You
    came from a home without the same opportunities for learning."

    But it is probably not a coincidence that elite colleges have not yet
    turned this sentiment into action. Admitting large numbers of
    low-income students could bring clear complications. Too many in a
    freshman class would probably lower the college's average SAT score,
    thereby damaging its [23]ranking by U.S. News & World Report, a
    leading arbiter of academic prestige. Some colleges, like [24]Emory
    University in Atlanta, have climbed fast in the rankings over
    precisely the same period in which their percentage of low-income
    students has tumbled. The math is simple: when a college goes looking
    for applicants with high SAT scores, it is far more likely to find
    them among well-off teenagers.

    More spots for low-income applicants might also mean fewer for the
    children of alumni, who make up the fund-raising base for
    universities. More generous financial aid policies will probably lead
    to higher tuition for those students who can afford the list price.
    Higher tuition, lower ranking, tougher admission requirements: they do
    not make for an easy marketing pitch to alumni clubs around the
    country. But Mr. Casteen and his colleagues are going ahead, saying
    the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

    That was the mission of John Blackburn, Virginia's easy-going
    admissions dean, when he rented a car and took to the road recently.
    Mr. Blackburn thought of the trip as a reprise of the drives Mr.
    Casteen took 25 years earlier, when he was the admissions dean,
    traveling to churches and community centers to persuade black parents
    that the university was finally interested in their children.

    One Monday night, Mr. Blackburn came to Big Stone Gap, in a mostly
    poor corner of the state not far from Andy Blevins's town. A community
    college there was holding a college fair, and Mr. Blackburn set up a
    table in a hallway, draping it with the University of Virginia's blue
    and orange flag.

    As students came by, Mr. Blackburn would explain Virginia's new
    admissions and financial aid policies. But he soon realized that the
    Virginia name might have been scaring off the very people his pitch
    was intended for. Most of the students who did approach the table
    showed little interest in the financial aid and expressed little need
    for it. One man walked up to Mr. Blackburn and introduced his son as
    an aspiring doctor. The father was an ophthalmologist. Other doctors
    came by, too. So did some lawyers.

    "You can't just raise the UVa flag," Mr. Blackburn said, packing up
    his materials at the end of the night, "and expect a lot of low-income
    kids to come out."

    When the applications started arriving in his office this spring,
    there seemed to be no increase in those from low-income students. So
    Mr. Blackburn extended the deadline two weeks for everybody, and his
    colleagues also helped some applicants with the maze of financial aid
    forms. Of 3,100 incoming freshmen, it now seems that about 180 will
    qualify for the new financial aid program, up from 130 who would have
    done so last year. It is not a huge number, but Virginia
    administrators call it a start.

    A Big Decision

    On a still-dark February morning, with the winter's heaviest snowfall
    on the ground, Andy Blevins scraped off his Jeep and began his daily
    drive to the supermarket warehouse. As he passed the home of Mike
    Nash, his neighbor and fellow gospel singer, he noticed that the car
    was still in the driveway. For Mr. Nash, a school counselor and the
    only college graduate in the singing group, this was a snow day.

    Mr. Blevins later sat down with his calendar and counted to 280: the
    number of days he had worked last year. Two hundred and eighty days -
    six days a week most of the time - without ever really knowing what
    the future would hold.

    "I just realized I'm going to have to do something about this," he
    said, "because it's never going to end."

    In the weeks afterward, his daydreaming about college and his
    conversations about it with his sister Leanna turned into serious
    research. He requested his transcripts from Radford and from
    [25]Virginia Highlands Community College and figured out that he had
    about a year's worth of credits. He also talked to Leanna about how he
    could become an elementary school teacher. He always felt that he
    could relate to children, he said. The job would take up 180 days, not
    280. Teachers do not usually get laid off or lose their pensions or
    have to take a big pay cut to find new work.

    So the decision was made. On May 31, Andy Blevins says, he will return
    to Virginia Highlands, taking classes at night; the Gospel Gentlemen
    are no longer booking performances. After a year, he plans to take
    classes by video and on the Web that are offered at the community
    college but run by [26]Old Dominion, a Norfolk, Va., university with a
    big group of working-class students.

    "I don't like classes, but I've gotten so motivated to go back to
    school," Mr. Blevins said. "I don't want to, but, then again, I do."

    He thinks he can get his bachelor's degree in three years. If he gets
    it at all, he will have defied the odds.


    3. http://www.colgate.edu/
    4. http://www.colorado.edu/
    5. http://www.stanford.edu/
    6. http://www.president.harvard.edu/
    8. http://www.radford.edu/
    9. http://www.virginia.edu/president/biography.html
   10. http://www.virginia.edu/
   11. http://www.amherst.edu/~president/bio.html
   12. http://www.amherst.edu/
   13. http://web.odu.edu/
   14. http://www.collegeboard.com/splash
   15. http://www.so.cc.va.us/
   17. http://www.mellon.org/Staff/Bowen/Content.htm
   18. http://www.harvard.edu/
   19. http://www.yale.edu/
   20. http://www.princeton.edu/
   21. http://www.williams.edu/
   22. http://www.virginia.edu/
   23. http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/college/rankings/rankindex_brief.php
   24. http://www.emory.edu/
   25. http://www.vhcc.edu/
   26. http://web.odu.edu/

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