Does Poverty Influence the Perceived Impact of Education?

Earlier in the year Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery made a splash with research that showed high achieving low-income students are less likely than their wealthier counterparts to apply to selective colleges. Low-income students tended to “under-match” even when they were likely to gain admission to selective schools and pay less tuition there. The paper sparked debate about what colleges, high schools, and governments can do to help low-income students apply to prestigious universities.

That’s all well and good, but I think the emphasis on college applications puts the focus on a specific symptom rather than the broader problem. People from different socioeconomic backgrounds view the world in different ways. They see opportunities differently. The life plan of “get good grades, apply to the best college, go to the best college, and get the best job” isn’t always the obvious one. In other words, the reason for under-matching isn’t just that low-income students don’t know they can go to a more selective college, it’s that they don’t view going to a selective college in the same way as students from wealthier backgrounds.

There’s a nice illustration of this difference in a new study by Sarah Beal and Lisa Crockett on the relationship between educational expectations and career aspirations. The study examined high school students over a three year period, with the sample largely consisting of students from a rural community considered to be economically disadvantaged. Across the entire sample, the researchers found that an increase in educational expectations was associated with an increase in occupational aspirations. That is, when students increased expectations about their level of educational attainment (e.g. that they would graduate from college instead of just high school), they tended to respond to the question of “What kind of work would you like to do?” with jobs that were more prestigious. (Job prestige was based on the National Opinion Research Center’s “prestige scores.”)

However, when the researchers divided the sample based on parental education levels, an important schism emerged. Among students with at least one parent who attended college there was once again a relationship between educational expectations and occupational aspirations. But for those students without a college-educated parent the relationship disappeared. When this latter group of students expected to receive a better education they did not alter what they aspired to do.

Obviously parental education is not a perfect proxy for poverty, but the implication is that the relationship between education and career aspirations can vary by SES status. And why wouldn’t it? Growing up in poverty or without parents who went to college doesn’t simply mean you lack the resources to make it through certain doors, it means you might recognize an entirely different set of doors. I was fortunate to go to a high school where 99% of students expected to go to college. Since a young age most of us believed that going to the most selective college was the key to fulfilling higher occupational aspirations. But living in poverty changes your priorities and your outlook, and under certain circumstances a more prestigious university won’t necessarily look like the best path to more desirable opportunities. And why bother worrying about what college you go to if doing so won’t change what you hope to accomplish? From this vantage point, giving low-income students better information about what colleges they can go to doesn’t get to the root of the problem. We need to actually do more to alter the way low-income students think about the impact of education.

It’s worth noting that the influence of parental education on the relationship between between education expectations and occupational aspirations isn’t the kind of thing that’s easily quantifiable for debates about whether there is “equality of opportunity” in the United States. Even if on paper you think poor students and wealthy students technically have similar opportunities, Beal and Crockett’s study suggests the reality of the situation is quite different. Our system of university-based social mobility was created by elites for elites, and thus the mechanism whereby attending a selective university solves your problems doesn’t necessarily make sense to those without parents who experienced it. And so even if students who grow up in a poor community have the opportunity to attend a selective university, and even if attending a selective university is in fact the best thing for them to do, their upbringing may not have given them the ability to recognize the importance of such an opportunity. If a great opportunity exists but you haven’t been equipped to recognize it as such, does the opportunity actually exist? I think the answer is no, and that means we won’t end under-matching or have equality of opportunity until low-income students see their most promising opportunities as clearly as wealthier students.

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

Beal, S.J., & Crockett, L.J. (2012). Adolescents’ occupational and educational goals: A test of reciprocal relations Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.appdev.2013.04.005


One Response to Does Poverty Influence the Perceived Impact of Education?

  1. It seems that the psychological reasoning behind people being influenced by their parents actions and group of people that they grow up around to make decisions on choosing a college could be connected to a form of stereotyping. A type of in-group/ out- group stereotyping and prejudice behavior. A person grows up in a certain society with certain views which is considered their “in-group”. They then grow up believing that the people among them and in their social group are more favorable then those that are not considered apart of that specific group by those in that group. They see those outside of their group in the “out-group” as unfavorable and inferior to them. So when people grow up around those that have access or know about better colleges are told that going to a university is needed and will benefit you in life. So they believe that those people who go to colleges are happy and favorable and usually strive to become like that as well.

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