The Burden of Academic Success

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The Burden of Academic Success
By Allison L. Hurst
Lexington Books

Whenever a low-income student manages to earn a college degree, it is routinely hailed as a great success. According to sociologist Allison L. Hurst, however, there are often times when it does not lead to rejoicing.

In her book, The Burden of Academic Success, Hurst documents stories of disadvantaged youths who experience their success in college as a breach of their bond with working-class friends and family who have never experienced the way a college degree can catapult someone into the world of middle-class expectations.

“… The type of work college prepares one for is middle-class work,” she notes. “By succeeding in college, working-class college students are not only embracing this type of work, but they are endorsing the hegemonic view that manual labor is less worthy.”

Some Youth Today readers may find it hard to believe that there are youths who are not eager to join the middle class. But Hurst’s research should not be dismissed by foundation executives, policymakers and youth advocates who are trying to get more low-income students to complete college. Hurst suggests that middle-class people should ask themselves whether these programs and policies are motivated by class-based prejudice.

Most youth educational programs that emphasize the importance of a college degree are motivated, at least in part, by economic projections suggesting that lucrative jobs will go begging in the future without more college graduates in the workforce. Nevertheless, Hurst thinks the advocates of such programs should be sensitive to what she calls a “burden” that academic achievement creates for children of low-income families.

We are familiar with the phenomenon Hurst describes in the African-American community, where young people reject academic success as nothing more than “acting white.” As Hurst explains it, “the point is not that some students reject academic success because it impinges on their racial identity, but that what it takes to succeed academically, to be perceived as a success by teachers and other evaluators, so often requires students to distance themselves from home communities. The fact that white working-class students experience a similar dynamic points us to a more class- and power-based understanding of this phenomenon.”

She maintains that while sensitivities about gender, religion and sexual identity also may be viewed – like race – as something that a college student may be forced to sacrifice in order to succeed, the experience of people in all these categories is “rooted in the basic insecurities of working-class life in late 20th century American society.”

Hurst contends that the middle class views low-income people as stupid or lazy, primarily because they have not embraced or aspired to the middle-class definition of success. The danger is that a working-class student matriculating among middle-class youths in an American university or college will internalize the majority’s negative view of his or her background.

 The classic American up-by-the-bootstraps story of individual achievement does not happen as often as many people believe, notes Hurst. “Despite the American myths to the contrary,” she writes, “the U.S. has never had a high rate of social mobility.” She argues that Americans prefer the Horatio Alger narrative primarily because “it is an easy way to avoid collective responsibility for continued inequalities.”

According to recent studies, only slightly more than half the American population has spent any time in a college classroom. And only 6 percent of college students from families who earn less than $25,000 actually have earned a degree. This compares with a 41 percent graduation rate among youth from the highest income quartile.

Colleges and universities can help dispel the negative image of lower-income people by offering courses in history, economics and literature that enable students to better appreciate working-class values. They can challenge the notion that success is always the result of individual achievement, and allow students to see that working-class people often face structural barriers that stifle individual ambition.

“I argue that an appropriate pedagogy for the working class (in college) is one that is non-assimilationist,” Hurst writes. “… How can higher education be reconfigured and presented so that it does not become necessary to reject one’s family and friends, one’s values of solidarity and cooperation and one’s class identity in order to succeed?”

Hurst also advocates legislation, including progressive taxation intended to reverse the growing disparity between the incomes of the rich and the poor. She would revamp college admissions and financial aid procedures to give kids from low-income families better opportunities. “Finally,” she says, “the assumption that college students are themselves middle class needs to be challenged. Even though it is the case that the middle class is over-represented at all types of higher educational institutions, faculty and administrators should always be open to the possibility that at least some of their students are working class.”