Does Everyone Want to Attend University?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times the other week that detailed some of the economic inequality in the US. It used academic data to discuss how poorly Americans estimate the level of social mobility. It’s certainly worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one section (and study):

Studies by another author of this article, the University of Illinois psychologist Michael W. Kraus, and his colleague Jacinth J.X. Tan, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found a similar pattern: When asked to estimate how many college students came from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, respondents substantially misjudged, estimating that those from the lowest income bracket attended college at a rate five times greater than the actual one documented by the Current Population Survey.

Now, it’s certainly worth noting how poor Americans are when it comes to estimating social mobility, (they’re certainly just as poor when it comes to estimating wealth inequality), but I’m curious about the desires of those in the bottom quintile. That is, many people espouse the values of higher education (full disclosure: I’m a professor at a higher education institution and I have two master’s degrees!), but what if everyone isn’t meant to go to university? More importantly, what if everyone doesn’t want to go to university?

Higher education is often held up as a mechanism for those in lower income quintiles to move up into a higher quintile (social mobility), but maybe people who come from the bottom quintile don’t want to go to university. I’m not in the bottom quintile nor did I grow up in the bottom quintile, so I have little to no authority to speak about the desires of those who come from the bottom quintile, but I think it’s worth asking what it is that the bottom quintile desires, specifically as it relates to higher education.

In raising this kind of question, it would, of course, be important to raise the issue of culture and how that influences one’s desires. That is, people who come from higher quintiles usually have parents (and friends) who think it natural to make the progression from high school to university. For some, attending post-secondary institutions of learning isn’t a choice — they’re forced to go. For those in the bottom quintile, attending a post-secondary institution of learning isn’t thought about in the same way. For many, it’s not “the thing you do after high school,” but instead, it’s held up as an ideal. It’s held up as a mechanism for transformation from being poor to not being poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that people in the bottom quintile shouldn’t attend university or shouldn’t want to attend university, but I think that alongside data discussing that estimates university attendance of different levels of income, there should also be data discussing the desires of those different levels of income.

ResearchBlogging.orgKraus, M., & Tan, J. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101-111 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005


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