Wasted Minds and Wasted Lives

Against the Current, No. 35, November/December 1991

Jake Ryan < and Charles Sackrey

“A child without education is essentially a child without hope or opportunity. You take the United Negro College Fund motto ‘What a waste it is to lose one’s mind or not have a mind as being very wasteful.’ How true that is. – Dan Quayle, Vice President, U.S.A.(1) <#N1>

1. Opening and Closing Heaven’s Gates

IN 1900 LESS than five percent of the 18-24 year-olds in the United States were in college, almost all of them males from rich families. By 1930, the ratio was still only 10%; yet after World War II began to swell and included more and more working-class youth.

This opening resulted primarily from an expanding and rapidly changing economy, the private and public sectors of which were producing slots for college-trained people faster than they could be supplied from the usual college-goers.(2) <#N2> The new opportunities were also spurred by federal and state scholarship programs urged by mass political movements in the 1960s.

By 1980, we had the following array of college students in terms of social background:

% of 1980 High School Socioeconomic Graduating Class Status Enrolled in College Low 30.3% Low-Middle 40.3% High-Middle 51.9% High 70.2% All 46.1%

In other words, some degree of democratization of higher education had occurred from the end of World War II through the 1970s, a process that ended with the Reagan presidency, even though the proportion of 18- 24 year-olds going to college continued to rise moderately during the 1980s.

One should be careful not to overestimate this opening to higher education. In fact, even at its height in 1980 approximately two-thirds of the youngsters in the bottom half of the income distribution who graduated that year did not go on to college that year. Of those who did, slightly less than half attended two-year colleges. And if we look at 1980 high school seniors from the lowest income quartile, by 1986 they were about five times less likely to graduate from a four-year college than their highest income counterparts, and eleven times less likely to acquire a graduate or professional degree.(3) <#N3> (We use income levels here as a general indicator of class, recognizing of course that this is only an approximation but adequate for purposes of this article.)

Furthermore, these figures do not take into account the significant difference in high school dropout rates between high- and low-income groups. Economist Robert Reich provides some particulars in his study of the college-going rates in three Massachusetts towns: Belmont, Somerville and Chelsea. Belmont is inhabited by members of the professional and managerial class. Their high school has a dropout rate of three percent; over 80% of its graduating seniors go to four-year colleges. In Chelsea the dropout rate is over 50%, and only 10% plan to attend college.(4) <#N4>

If the Chelsea college-going rate doubled in the next few years, this community of significantly “unemployed and unemployable” will still be desperate and in poverty. Furthermore, it will not mean that some portion of the 80% of college-bound youth from Belmont will be forced out of their pathways to class succession by the upstarts from Chelsea. At worst, a few of those from Belmont might end up at less selective institutions and bring shame upon their high-achieving families.

Like their elders in the wage labor system, working-class youngsters can improve their prospects most easily in an expanding economy, or by dint of periodic outbursts of public pressure to increase the social wage. Needless to say, when the economy declines or is restructured, or when public policy shifts the other way, invitations to campus will no longer be sent to working-class youth. In fact, during boom or recession, the college prospects for them reflect the relatively diminished prospects for everything else they will get: jobs, health care, income, leisure, the degree of upward mobility, the dignity afforded to them by life.

As our society is currently made, whatever their proportion in college, most working-class kids will be raised as fodder for the “lesser” jobs, just as they have always been. This is not, of course, to argue that all wage labor jobs, for example, are “worse” than all salaried jobs, in whatever way the costs and benefits of both are measured. Nevertheless, for every professional who fantasizes about an enticing wage labor job in the trades or in services, there are probably thousands of wage workers whose dream is that they—and if not themselves, their children—will someday be able to join the professional classes.

Some few of those who display talent and habits of mind appropriate for long-term schooling are courted and creamed off the top, invited to join their class betters in the more prestigious institutions of higher learning and eventually in positions of class privilege. Policies that result in intellectual creaming of the “elite” from down below are then heralded as evidence of the openness of the social order, fairness, equal opportunity and so on.

If, however, the performance of working-class college entrants on standardized tests is fifty or 100 points lower than their middle-class counterparts and if they are admitted to an elite school, a great howl goes up about the “unfairness” of the selection process. If it is unfair, the magnitude of the unfairness is indeed very small; when compared to the deal that establishes vastly different starting places—one with embroidered broad pathways, others strewn with obstacles of almost insurmountable dimension. It is patently absurd for a society to create such divisions and still be able to claim to be committed to the ideal of equal opportunity.

Ordinarily obscured in this debate is the fact that the ungifted and/or unruly children of the establishment have ample spaces open to them, in either highly subsidized public higher education or expensive (but also subsidized) private higher education. No one asks how many of the less gifted children of the middle and upper classes should go on to college. All! Every last one, if they can pay the toll.

As any seasoned academic knows, many of these students are neither bright, nor curious, nor even ambitious. They are merely following the script that middle class life offers, where most ultimately go to college and where most succeed their parents into the ranks of relative power and plenty. Class advantages can overwhelm the injuries of a wasted mind and a dimmed imagination. The nation’s vice president lives the proof.

Without question, the new conservatism ushered in at the end of the 1970s has set in reverse motion whatever opening had been made in campus gates for working-class kids. Working-class access was particularly sensitive to federal policy, demography and economic trends, and the friendly circumstances critical to this inclusion were abolished amidst Reaganomics and the depressed or stagnant possibilities generated for working class people during the 1980s.

For instance, the great shift of personal income that occurred in the 1980s drastically altered the ability to attend college for those at all but the highest income levels. From 1980-1990, the real, after-tax household income of the lowest fifth declined by $384, from $7357 to $6973, or 5.2%. Indeed, there was no real change in the average income for the typical family in the bottom three-fifths of the income distribution, and an increase of less than 10% for the second highest fifth. Only the richest fifth made real gains, on the order of about one-third per family. The share going to the richest 1% actually doubled, in real terms, during the decade.(5) <#N5>

In the face of these declining incomes for all but the plutocrats were rising rates of tuition and other costs of attending college. Increases constantly outstripped inflation and rose in some cases as much as 10% per yeat.(6) <#N6> Unfortunately, neither the state nor the federal government stepped in to pick up the tab: Between 1980-89 total funds for grants, fellowships and loan guarantees rose modestly from $8.5 to $9.4 billion in real dollars, hardly enough to offset either the rising tuition costs or the declining family income.(7) <#N7>

Exemplifying the consequences for working-class kids, Harvard, one of the few schools that keeps specific statistics regarding working-class applicants, noted in a report on admissions that in 1988 only 11% of its applicants were from non-college families, whereas three years earlier the pool was 16%. Other elite colleges noted a comparable decline in white and African-American applicants.(8) <#N8>

Further, African-American enrollments in colleges and universities have actually declined slightly in the 1980s, reversing the trend of the 1970s. Indeed, enrollments of white students, 18-24 years old, increased about twice as rapidly as those of Blacks between 198088. This is a drastic reversal because in the 1970s white enrollments had actually fallen by 6% while Black enrollments grew by 28%.(9) <#N9> Since African Americans represent about one-third of all low income families in the United States, this trend embodies the financial and other obstacles standing between low income people, Black and white, and the campus grounds.

An additional factor explaining declining African-American enrollments is that racial minorities are disproportionately choosing the armed forces over jobs and college. African Americans alone make up 21% of active duty forces, up from 11% in 1970, while their percentage of the population is only 12%. Between 1980 and 1987 the number of African-American recruits from middle or upper-middle income neighborhoods jumped by 56%.(10) <#N10> And the percentage of Black high school graduates from middle income families who were enrolled in college declined between 1976 and 1988, from 53% to 36%.

It is no mystery where low income young people are going these days, if not to college. We know that few are going into the factories to make good wages with benefits. Anyone paying modest attention to the economy knows that over the past decade extraordinary numbers of industrial jobs have been lost to economic restructuring urged forward by the hypermobility of profit-maximizing capital, while the fiscal managers have chosen to maintain high levels of unemployment to curb endemic inflationary tendencies. As many as 8090% of the new jobs generated in this country since the depression of the early 1980s have been unstable, part-time, low-paying or otherwise unattractive service industry work.

So metaphorically and literally, it is likely—and much evidence attests—that more and more low income youngsters are going nowhere, unless to the cemetery at an early age or to prison spurred by the drug culture and national drug hysteria. Between 1982 and 1989 the incarcerated population rose from 605,098 to 1,035,446, or from 270 to 426 per 100,000 population. This can be compared to 1989 rates in such countries as the Soviet Union (268), Italy (60) and Denmark (40). In 1989, the United States had incarcerated 3109 African-American males per 100,000, while the rate for South African Black males was 729. It should surprise no one that according to studies reported by the Justice Department, using data from the early 1980s, about four-fifths of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons were blue collar, farm or service workers; that about two-thirds in jails and prisons had not finished high school; that of those in jails, 45% were unemployed and 12% held part-time jobs when imprisoned.(11) <#N11>

These grim, ugly, hard realities will not be altered significantly by liberalized tuition grant policies, more aggressive college recruitment from the working class, racial and ethnic minorities, or improved schools. That there be paths of escape from the bottom does not satisfy any reasonable definition of the good society. If the paths accommodate fifty escapees instead of forty, does it mean we are in a period of progressive change? We must always consider what has happened to those down below over the same period of time.

The evidence is that the costs of staying behind are perhaps greater than they have been in recent history. The bottom fifth of income earners is slipping into a kind of hell of surplus labor, of marginalization resulting in chronic unemployment, family disintegration, school and neighborhood collapse, a void of essential services, crime and desperation.

2. Strangers in Paradise

College may well be an escape from the indignities and perils of working-class life; yet those who get there from the lower orders must negotiate difficult terrain, in college and after. Attending elite schools obviously places one smack in the middle of class superiors.

Working-class students must cast about in a strange world of the rich and privileged, trying to find some solution to alienation and isolation; no small number will endure the fact that spring break is the occasion for a needed stint of wage labor, rather than for a baking of one’s hide at Montego Bay. All must cope with new circumstances and negotiating some continuing attachments to prior affiliations, family, friends and the like. So begins the experience of living in two worlds, with a foot in each and a heart in neither, two ways of speaking, two modes of behavior, dual class membership with conflicting loyalties.(12) <#N12>

For racial and ethnic minorities the complexity is richer, as skin color remains a basis for challenging the legitimacy of one’s presence on predominantly white campuses, and for some the charge of selling out and becoming “white” must be confronted on weekend visits to the old neighborhood. Certainly, high attrition rates for class- and race-conflicted youngsters are one probable consequence.

Lurking close to the surface in this process is the specter of betrayal and abandonment of those left behind, and the rejection of the authentic self-rooted in the culture of class origin. Our research has convinced us that this process often begins in college and continues throughout one’s experience in the professional ranks. These feelings may not be manifest on a conscious level but could be operating at an unconscious level, the source of misidentified or poorly understood distress, ironically related to personal success.

In other words, escape from the lower depths is itself fraught with difficulties that go beyond the intellectual challenge and the financial obstacles. We believe that the further one goes into the world of the unfamiliar or the deeper into conflicted class relationships, the greater the risk of feeling a traitor or an imposter or just plain alone.

In all this, we do not want to trivialize the importance of college-going rates for working-class youth. Certainly, for countless people in this country the experience has ushered in the better life, furthered family ambitions, embodied the American dream, strengthened and enlightened the minds and spirits of many. The fact remains that children of upper-income people will have an opportunity to attend college be they bright or not, and most working-class children won’t.

The proper perspective in which to judge these matters, we believe, is to remember that even in the golden days of democratization two Out of every three working-class kids, if they were the ones who “got in,” went from high school to work or into military service. For this two-thirds the experience of campus life, if it occurred at all, was as a secretary, a janitor or a food service employee, doing their part to provide the good life for their social superiors.

Also of critical concern is the system’s failure to provide a decent life for those to whom college is not an option even under ideal circumstances. The quality of a social system must ultimately be judged not simply by the degree of opportunity it offers to become “somebody,” but by how it treats those who try and fail or never even get a real chance to try.

Current versions of liberal reform can produce neither fair opportunity nor a decent life for those left Out of the so-called American Dream. At the time of the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Haywood Burns, Dean of the CUNY Law School said, ‘Any system must be judged not by the relatively few Thomases that in whatever way ‘make it,’ not by the few dreams realized, but by the millions crushed or forever deferred.”(13) <#N13> So many minds—and lives—are wasted by the failure to measure up to any reasonable standard of a good society. How true that is!


1. Cited In These Times, May 24-June 6, 1989, 4.

2. We discuss social forces that stimulated expansion of enrollments in
our book Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class
(Boston: South End Press, 1984).

3. Data from U.S. Government Statistical Bulletin, 1990 and various
annual Fall Enrollment Surveys and the Digest of Education
Statistics, published by Center for Educational Statistics, U.S.
Department of Education.

4. Reich’s study is cited by Holly Sklar in an excellent analysis of the implications of the widening income gap, 1980-89, ‘The Truly Greedy, Part M,’ Z Magazine, June 1991, lO-1.

5. Ibid.

6. “Fuming Over College Costs,” Newsweek, May 18, 1987, 6.

7. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education
Statistics, Financial Statistics of Institutions of Higher
Education,’ April 1990, and National Association of State
Scholarship and Grant Programs, 20th Annual Survey Report, January 1990.

8. Hassan and Reynolds, Working Class Students at Selective Colleges: “Where Have They Gone?” College Board Review, Winter 1987-88, 4-5.

9. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, Current Population Reports, series P-20, no. 433.

10. Brenda Payton, “Looking for a Post Gulf Role,” The Nation, July 1, 1991, 8-11.

11. Incarceration rates from National Prison Project, Journal, Winter
1991. Personal characteristics of inmates from U.S. Department of
Justice, Report to the Nation on Crime and justice, 2nd ed., March 1988.

12. We are examining many accounts of the impact of upward mobility experiences, building on our analysis in Strangers in Paradise.

13. Haywood Burns, “Clarence Thomas, A Counterfeit Hero,” New York Times, July 9, 1991, 19.

© 2020 Against the Current

No. 35, November/December 1991