We asked some of our readers and listeners to tell us about their experiences with college and social mobility. Here are a few of their stories.
Location: San Diego, CA
Education Level: Master's degree
Birth Year: 1987
I grew up very poor. [I am] the daughter of a farm worker and a homemaker. My mom worked many side jobs, but had to be home mostly to raise five girls. My dad worked in the fields and followed crops until I was about 10. We moved to the United States when my dad could bring us all here. He got a stable job at a dairy farm and my mom got a full-time job once we were all in school.
I never thought about social class before moving to the United States. I never thought of myself as "poor." I was made aware of this when I moved to the United States. "Social class" was really evident in opportunities. The kids who lived in the nicer part of town were the ones taking AP classes in high school. They were the [student body] presidents, they were the drama club students. The rest of us were just regular people whose only shot was community college.
My parents always told me to go to school and do better than them. They said they worked very hard so that I could have a shot at going to college and having a better life than they did. I've worked full time since I turned 18. I also went to college full time, finished a bachelor's degree, two teaching credentials, and a master's degree. My oldest sister did not go to college and she regrets it every day of her life. She recently got a managerial position which will almost pay as much as I make as a teacher. It took me five years to make my current pay. It took her 15 years to get close to what I make.
One of my husband's closest friends is a supervisor at the company they both work at. He makes significantly more money than my college-educated husband. By the looks of it, my husband's friend has it made, but he says he regrets not going to college because being a supervisor at the company he works at now is his only choice. He cannot move to another city if things go downhill at his current company.
I think the first step toward changing [the social class structure] in America would be to talk about social classes. We don't even say "poor." We call our poor the "working class." The reason why we don't say "poor" is because "poor" is for developing countries. "Poor" is for minorities. "Poor" is for immigrants. "Poor" is not for white people. "Working class" is for white people. There's a clear difference between minorities and whites. When you start talking about social class, you also have to talk about race because they not only intersect, but they're sewn together into the fabric that is the history of our nation.
Location: Seattle, WA
Education Level: Master's degree
Race/Ethnicity: Second-generation African American
Birth Year: 1990
I grew up with a single mother who earned mostly minimum wage. After attending college and graduate school, I now make almost three times what my mother made at her highest.
My family came to the US when I was an infant. I grew up with my mom in government housing. I attended some of the worst schools in Seattle. We never had much, but somehow I went to community college, then transferred to a four-year college and then went to graduate school.
It was in college — where I met people who were of different classes than me — that I became aware of how poor I was. In college I learned about all of the things money buys but, more subtly, I picked up on the way wealthy people are supposed to speak and act, like not discussing money and sending thank you notes. I progressively got better jobs and moved up from a volunteer position to working at a research/consulting firm, where I was introduced to new levels of wealth. In that position I [came to] understand how social class influences everything from what people eat for lunch (the upper class is more health conscious) to what people discuss (upper class discusses The New York Times or new books).
Though I find myself in the upper class, I'm not really of it. I don't fully relate to my original class because I have new interests and tastes. But I have upwards of $150,000 in student debt and I have to support my family financially. I also support people in my community with advice and in other non-financial ways. I don't have the luxury of focusing solely on what I want or the ability to save as much as I'd like. As I've navigated the social class ladder, I've realized social class is about much more than income. It's about habits, cultural tastes, discussion topics, etc. Essentially, social class shapes how one views the world and the things people do or don't do. It's a force that unknowingly permeates our lives.
Location: Ames, Iowa
Occupation: Ph.D. Candidate
Education Level: Bachelor's degree
Birth Year: 1981
I am a 36-year-old single mom currently in graduate school in a STEM field.
My parents are working class/poor. When I was three, my dad became permanently disabled in a car crash. When my parents did work, they held service and factory jobs.
Shortly after I graduated high school and was attending community college, a boyfriend coerced me into pregnancy. I dropped out of college to support my son and didn't return until six years later. By that time, I was married to someone else and had a mortgage. My factory job included a tuition reimbursement benefit, which I used to obtain my bachelor's degree — doing shift work on the weekends at home, then driving three hours to stay in an apartment in the university town during the week.
Even after several years, I feel like I'm still in the hole and that I might leave grad school without a graduate degree. I feel like I'm a crab trying to crawl out of a crab bucket, with fellow crabs pulling me back down.
I have much less flexibility or room for mistakes. Once I've chosen a path, if it's not working, I can't just quit, move back home, and figure out what to do next.
I never wanted to be rich. All I ever wanted was to use my intellectual abilities to make the world a better place. Following the rules that society tells me I need to follow to do that, though — education, frugality, hard work — has left me in a much more precarious situation than I would have been in if I had stayed in my factory job.
Location: Kearns, UT
Occupation: Quality Assurance Analyst
Education Level: Associate degree
Birth Year: 1985
My parents are a higher social class than I am. Both of them have college degrees. Growing up there was always the expectation that I would eventually go to college.
Honestly, the only thing having a college degree has done for me is make me miserable, poor, and stressed out. I spent six years in college before I ended up with an [Associate of Applied Science degree] in general studies, and I am now working toward my bachelor's in fisheries and wildlife sciences. I've been in school for nine years, and I still don't have a "four-year" degree. I made the unfortunate decision to not go to college right out of high school, and by the time I had decided to go back to school, I had been living on my own for about 3.5 years. I now had bills to pay, so I had to work full time and go to school part time. Most semesters I was only able to take one or two classes, which made getting my degree a very slow process. After being in college for six years, I wanted SOMETHING to show for my efforts. So I settled for general studies, and then transferred to a four-year university to get a bachelor's in fisheries and wildlife sciences. I think my life will be improved once I get my bachelor's.
I can't do anything with an associate degree. The job that I have now, I have because of work experience. Education has not changed my social class. Work experience has.
Money mostly [determines social class]. Education occasionally plays into it, but I feel that if you have street smarts and you are a shrewd decision maker that you can move into a higher social class without really needing something like a master's degree.