Data Snapshot: Graduate Students, Social Class, and Academia’s Promise

Do graduate programs provide real upward mobility, or are they a revolving door for the elite?
By Mathieu Dubeau and Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer

Recent admissions scandals have cast serious doubt on the purpose and fairness of the American higher education system. The public has grown similarly skeptical about universities’ marketing of their graduate programs as pathways to employment in academia or high-paying policy or industry jobs. To working-class students, especially, the promises of higher education—meritocratic admissions and social mobility—often seem hollow.

Early American colleges and universities were built for the elite. As these institutions began to admit racial minorities, women, and the working class, enrollments increased. These changes, however, were not always welcomed. For instance, when the GI Bill enabled students from working-class backgrounds to enroll in large numbers, some administrators were outright hostile. In 1944, Robert Maynard Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, said that such an expansion would create “educational hobo jungles.” More recently, state spending on higher education has leveled off at public four-year universities and in-state graduate tuition and doctoral student debt has increased (see figure). The effects of these institutional changes on socioeconomic class have been studied by Robert Haveman and Timothy M. Smeeding, who argue that the current system “seems to intensify and reinforce differences in economic status” and does not fulfill its promise to promote socioeconomic mobility for the working class or for students of color.

In an effort to weigh Haveman and Smeeding’s conclusion against the claims of universities, we asked more than one hundred social science graduate students at the University of Washington, in an informal pilot survey, how they define their class background and how it shapes their graduate school experience. Graduate students working as research or teaching assistants at UW make on average $24,000 a year in a city with some of the highest housing costs in the country. A large body of research has addressed the effects of socioeconomic status on undergraduates, but what are the impacts of the compounding precarity for those pursuing graduate studies?

Quantitative academic scholarship typically understands class in terms of a person’s socioeconomic status. But what does this really mean to social science graduate students, many of whom study social and economic stratification? Our survey asked students how they would define their class background (“upper class,” “middle class,” “working class,” or “lower class”) and then asked them to further describe their class. The respondents used a variety of factors to define their class, including intergenerational resources, parental education and marital status, housing and food security, career histories, and cultural capital. Fifty-two percent of the students surveyed defined themselves as members of the middle class. One of these students wrote, “My parents own their home and I had all my basic needs met growing up. My parents could pay for expensive extracurricular activities like hockey, providing basic needs and tuition in college.” The next largest grouping of students, those defining themselves as belonging to the working class or lower class, constituted 32 percent of the respondents. These students said that their class background was defined by “lack of access to cultural and social enrichment as a child, reliance upon school lunch programs, and a general lack of availability of healthy food, reliable transportation, and peer mentorship” or “high debt, no savings, constant precarity, lack of access to quality medical care.” Finally, 14 percent of the students reported belonging to the upper class. They described their background as filled with “wealth, lifestyle, education, and access to resources.” As one student from this group wrote, “I'm a snob about wine, coffee, and cheese. My grandmother's house has 4 stories and an ocean view. If I needed $10,000 I could rely on getting it from more than one family member.”

What effect does this range of class backgrounds have on the graduate school experience? Students who identified as members of the upper class in our survey consistently report that their class status makes it possible for them to stay enrolled and complete their degrees; they feel a level of security that they understand is not shared by their middle-, working-, or lower-class peers. As one student from an upper-class background says, “Concerns about money were nominal, no debt, lots of privileged access to school, lots of cultural capital to help me.” Another student from a similar background noted that “the benefits of parental wealth extend far beyond the ongoing financial advantage their children have—although this is a critical advantage. There are also psychological and emotional benefits created through a life of comfort and confidence. There are social benefits through familial professional networks, and through the opportunity to pursue more risky career paths. It is likely that it is for these reasons that I find myself in graduate school in the first place.”

Students from lower- or working-class backgrounds tell a very different story. For instance, one working-class student wrote, “I struggle to save money or pay down debt as a result of having to help out financially back home. Due to my father’s health, I have to fly home several times a year on my modest stipend or accrue credit-card debt . . . My parents do not have the resources or job security to visit. Both parents lost their homes in the foreclosure crisis and are renters now.” Another student said, “Being working-class also makes it difficult to focus on graduate school. Often, regular family needs or emergencies reduce the time I have to dedicate to my research. As a working-class immigrant, I’m not just thinking about how my career or work can help me, but how it can uplift my family.”

The ramifications of lower-class backgrounds are not simply financial. Respondents with these backgrounds also report high incidence of psychological stress and alienation, both from family members who may not understand their choice to pursue a graduate degree and from colleagues who may have more privileged access to necessary resources. Many describe having difficulty relating to and entering a world that was meant to exclude them. As one student stated:

I don’t seem to fit in with most of the other academics and now I am noticeably an outsider with my family (as [a result of] my choices to forego actual income). It’s a lonely place to be with extremely high costs for failure. I constantly code-switch, namely with my speech, to ensure that each group I interact with can’t tell I am not part of that group. In academic settings, I drop my accent or avoid words that I haven’t yet mastered in a “higher-class” dialect. When I return to my hometown and visit family, I rarely talk about anything that I’m genuinely interested in because it falls on deaf ears. Both places require me to show up as an inauthentic version of myself, as neither has ever rewarded me for being a hybrid.

Students from middle-class backgrounds report sharing some concerns of both of the other groups. One middle-class student described feeling a blend of security and uncertainty:

In the early stages of graduate school, the fact that I had a middle-class upbringing and that my parents had been to college made them more supportive of the decision I was making to attend graduate school. I had many people in my life who had completed graduate school, making it feel like an attainable goal. Now, as I prepare for life beyond graduate school, I question whether I will be able to find a job that will keep me in a similar economic bracket to my parents. The precarity that comes in the later stages of graduate school of not knowing whether I will have funding for an upcoming quarter and not knowing where I will be living/working in a year leave me in a weird middle ground where I have a social safety net due to my family’s middle-class status . . . but at the same time feel extremely precarious because I don’t have significant savings to fall back on and I don’t have the resources to fund myself through a multiyear job search—which seems like it is becoming increasingly common in academia today.

These short statements illustrate the significant financial, emotional, and social impact of class on students’ ability to succeed in graduate school. So do graduate degrees, particularly in social sciences, truly advance social mobility for lower- and working-class students? Though the cultural capital cultivated while earning a doctoral degree may position recent working- and lower-class graduates to move beyond traditional, labor-intensive jobs, our survey highlights how graduate programs tend to reproduce society’s inequities by reinforcing the unequal costs of pursuing higher education. Those graduate students with a more privileged class background are more likely to have the cultural capital to effectively advocate for themselves and build social networks, be able to mobilize the necessary resources to focus on their graduate research, and have the familial safety net to provide financial security during years of undertaking a poorly compensated endeavor. 

While graduate programs fail to account for the unequal costs of pursuing doctoral degrees, universities have incentives to increase enrollments and decrease costs, which has in recent decades meant cannibalizing tenure lines and increasing the number of low-paid, precarious adjunct positions. Not coincidentally, this change has occurred as women, people of color, and people from working-class backgrounds have pursued graduate studies in increasing numbers. The purported meritocracy that had promised these marginalized students a place in America’s intellectual elite has, arguably, been proven a myth; or as one student observed, “they traded low wages and uncertainty in one industry for low wages and uncertainty in another.”

Who, then, can afford to risk spending years in graduate school for the shrinking pool of tenure-track positions? Are these educational institutions simply a revolving door of opportunity for the wealthiest among us?

Our pilot study provides some evidence that the convergence of class-related pressures is exacting a disproportionate cost on lower- and working-class graduate students. If we are at all interested in creating educational institutions that deliver on the promise of social and economic mobility, we must become better aware of how graduate student class backgrounds intersect not only with our other identities but also with the quality of education we can provide and the research we can conduct. Ignoring, or oversimplifying, the complexity of class background in graduate education—in terms of both how it is defined and its effects—risks excluding the most vulnerable among us and widening the generational wealth gaps that education was meant to diminish.

Mathieu Dubeau is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Washington. He studies the intersection of labor, ecology, and Marxist theory to answer questions relating to justice, capitalism, and work. Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer is a political science doctoral student and studies the governance of public pension funds.