Book Review: "The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In a book titled "The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility," author Gary Roth examines how colleges and universities impact upward and downward social mobility, and why upward mobility isn't always guaranteed for college graduates. The changing nature of postsecondary education and social mobility, Roth writes, plays a part in the underemployment of college graduates. Financial aid administrators may "feel our mental gears engage as we read about the situations in which Roth says many of our students are likely to find themselves, " said G. Michael Johnson, who read the book and shared his unbiased opinions of its content at the request of NASFAA. "If Roth's conclusions and predictions have merit, and there is reason to believe they do, we clearly need to do our part to try to make things better," he continued. What follows are his takeaways, thoughts, and reflections.

Reviewed by G. Michael Johnson, Director of Financial Aid at Columbia Gorge Community College

In "The Educated Underclass: Students and the Promise of Social Mobility," sociologist, lecturer, and former Rutgers University Vice Chancellor and Dean Gary Roth presents a wealth of data, along with anecdotal information drawn from students' experiences, to reach two related conclusions: today's students cannot, in fact, expect postsecondary education to confer upward social mobility; and today's middle class is, by several measures, becoming a new working class. As a result, many, if not most, college graduates will continue to experience underemployment as they work in jobs for which their degrees are not required, that are not related to their fields of study, and that are not of the quality they expected.

He presents the reasons for these developments as a complex mix of social, economic, and demographic trends and trajectories that began in the years immediately following the second World War and have evolved through the ensuing years of dramatic societal change. Using concepts and terms with which students of Marx and Engels will be familiar, Roth essentially provides a critique of capitalism through a higher education lens and offers a pessimistic view of the future social and economic prospects for college graduates.

Roth discusses a variety of dynamics that have contributed to and interacted with the situations he describes. He starts by introducing varied and changing definitions, perceptions, and indicators of social class, as well as the largely hereditary nature of social class, which confers differential access to goods, services, and opportunities. In addition, he describes the effects of increased government spending on social and economic programs, including education, and discusses how the working and middle classes have been affected by changes in the operation of the manufacturing and service industries.

He also notes how higher education works as a sorting mechanism to reinforce and reproduce class distinctions and acts as an initial screening mechanism for employers to select prospective employees. Roth dives into the concept of education as infrastructure, discussing the effects of "mass education" and the overproduction and resulting devaluation of college degrees. He explores the creation of the part-time and temporary jobs that characterize the "gig economy" and its contribution to underemployment and limited social mobility. The book also discusses the concentration of wealth in the top 20% of the income scale that has occurred along with, and contributes to, economic stagnation in the bottom 80%.

Roth covers a lot of complicated ground and includes statistical references throughout the book that require a close reading to follow all aspects of his argument; however, he does so clearly and concisely, pulling the pieces together to form a remarkably cohesive whole. He provides uncomplicated figures and tables to illustrate his major points, and rather than delay his narrative with long discussions of his sources, he provides an extensive "Notes" section where readers interested in particular details can find them.

Of special interest to financial aid administrators is a section in Chapter 2 entitled "Student loans and student debt" (p. 48). Here, Roth suggests that while student loans began as a way to increase students' success in postsecondary education, student loan debt has exacerbated the financial problems associated with underemployment for many students and further decreased their chances for social mobility. He describes the "student loan crisis" not as the $1.6 trillion problem most reporters cite, but as primarily affecting students who borrow relatively small amounts — especially if those students do not earn a credential.

I do have a few quibbles. While Roth cites historical information at various points in the book, he waits until the third chapter for a discussion of historical trends and influences. I think having the discussion proceed chronologically would have made it easier to follow, understand, and link the changes he discusses. He also describes the G.I. Bill in terms that may understate its impact. He states that most veterans did not use the educational funding and two-thirds of those who did used the benefit for "below college" training. This ignores that, by 1947, 49% of all college students were veterans. Lastly, and more importantly, he notes that recent increases in racial integration have been offset by gentrification, that income segregation continues to shrink the middle class, and that public support for higher education continues to erode. However, he presents little in the way of resolutions to these and other problems. He may hope that readers will come up with their own ideas, within or apart from the constraints and challenges he feels capitalism imposes.

To that end, what should financial aid administrators make of Roth's conclusions? What actions, if any, should they inspire? Since we are a group dedicated to furthering college access and choice, and our mission is to promote student success, I suspect many of us will feel our mental gears engage as we read about the situations in which Roth says many of our students are likely to find themselves. For example, perhaps we can think of ways to reduce the price students pay for the education we offer in an effort to ameliorate somewhat the effects the underemployment and student loan burden they might later experience. Perhaps we will be prompted to consider how well our academic offerings relate to job opportunities and how best to work with community partners to facilitate post-graduation work experiences. Or perhaps certain advocacy efforts will come to mind. If Roth's conclusions and predictions have merit, and there is reason to believe they do, we clearly need to do our part to try to make things better.

"The Educated Underclass. Students and the Promise of Social Mobility," by Gary Roth. Pluto Press, June 2019, 192 pp.


Mike Johnson is director of financial aid at Columbia Gorge Community College. He has been a financial aid administrator for more than 30 years, working at two-year public colleges and four-year public and private universities in Oregon and Washington. He was OASFAA president in 1996-97 and WASFAA president in 2016-17, and has served on state, regional, and national financial aid committees and task forces. Johnson has assisted with OASFAA's FA 101/201 and high school counselor training, as well as WASFAA's Sister Dale Brown Summer Institute, Jerry R. Sims Management & Leadership Institute, and Fall Training events. He's currently a Representative-at-Large on NASFAA's Board of Directors.


Publication Date: 3/12/2020

Kim K | 3/12/2020 2:47:09 PM

Thank you for providing this thoughtful review. Even without having read the book, your review gives pause for an opening discussion of the concepts.

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