Jude, Still Obscure

The New York Times reports on a new study showing that high-achieving, working-class students are shunning elite schools (an unnamed list of “the 238 most selective colleges”) in favor of regional universities and community colleges. The study finds that many such students are unaware of these elite colleges, since they’re not likely to have met anyone who has attended such a place and, presumably, were not raised with the expectation that they could attend one. Most disturbingly, many of these students who end up in what the Times delicately refer to as “less selective” colleges, fail to graduate, despite their potential.

This is sobering news, and ought to spark a conversation not only about education reform, but also about societal reform, about how we treat the working class, especially its youth. We need the happy ending that was denied to Jude Fawley. Unfortunately, this article doesn’t seem to come anywhere near that. The writer—and the experts behind the study and the ones he quotes—don’t take into account the rest of society. Education, especially the whole system from grade school to college, is large enough to have internal problems, but it’s also so integral to the rest of society that its problems cannot always be solved internally. Sometimes, the problems of education are problems with everything else. This article, however, fails to acknowledge that; instead, it mistakenly tries to solve problems through the system that creates the problems.

One of the touchstones of the piece is that the failure of working class students to go to top colleges is a bad thing. And, in a way, it is. The article points out that better colleges can offer greater career opportunities, and that failing to graduate from any school generally means a much lower salary. But are the roots of those problems with students and educators, and is the solution to bring more students into elite universities? Rather than expand the number of students in elite universities, it would be more equitable and efficient to expand opportunities for students in other colleges. Many of these elite colleges are unprepared for the task of handling every talented student in the country: some of them are small liberal arts colleges that, by their nature, must limit admissions, while others, such as Yale or Harvard, were designed to serve only a region and a class. State universities, even regional, so-called midtier ones, have the infrastructure and purpose to graduate large numbers of students. The best way to give opportunities to more people, especially working class students, is to recognize the potential of graduates from universities outside the elite list.

There is also a moral logic to such a plan. Bringing more students into the elite system doesn’t create equality so much as it expands aristocracy. The consolidated privilege of opportunity and wealth is still consolidated in a few, even if that few includes a few students of humble origins. Equality demands we recognize not only the equality of students, but also the relative equality of institutions: bright, talented graduates can come from outside the elite system. Yes, just as some students are brighter than others, some schools do offer better instruction. But the Times list cites a system of two-hundred and thirty-eight schools; could that many schools be so superior, in all areas, that they and they alone are capable of education? There is a limit to the practicality of the elite system of schools, but also to its necessity.

The article is also faced with some of the challenges outside of the domain of education, and once again ignores them. It presents the cycle of poverty: the students are born poor, and because of their poverty, they cannot attend the proper school and perhaps cannot finish college at all, which means they are then unable to get a well-paying job, thus keeping them and their children poor. And yet still the only solution presented is for elite schools to recruit more poor students. But that does nothing for the students who go to less remarkable schools or for the students who don’t go to college at all or dropout; caring only about the academically elite among the working class does nothing but expand the base and power of the elite. It also ignores the less-quantifiable problems working class students face, such as the pressure to make money for themselves or their families, or the tension created (on all sides) by entering a middle and upper-class environment. And while the article mentions the financial aid available at some elite universities (although that isn’t universal), for many poor families the expenses of housing, books, food, transportation, and the other small expenses are as unfeasible as paying the whole bill. Loans are of course an option, but considering the twin crises of debt and unemployment or underemployment among college graduates, it’s hardly an ideal solution, and one can hardly blame students who might reasonably realize that being poor is still richer than being in debt (especially if a college degree might just land them in an unskilled job anyway).

Jude Fawley, the protagonist in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, sought salvation in the university, particularly the most uppercrust elements of it; I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it doesn’t work out. At all. And the shame is that a hundred years past, many poor students are meeting a fate that, while not as tragic and brutal as a Hardy ending, is still a far cry from a comic ending. The lesson we can learn, though, is that it is going to take more than a few reforms at a few schools to fix the problem. A mandated living wage, for instance, would help free families from poverty, giving their children greater choice and mobility in schooling; it would also alleviate the pressure from students who don’t go to college, or students who find themselves underemployed. A greater government involvement in job searching and job creation—ending the token meritocracy of elite schools, giving workers protection against the vagaries of economics—would also reduce the strain on graduates and would spread job opportunities more equitably, instead of concentrating them in the graduates of elite schools. Greater funding and standardization of K-12 education would make sure that poor students are prepared for a university education. And finally, there is no reason that a country as wealthy as the United States cannot provide a free university education—at least through a state university and at least through the bachelor’s degree—to all of its citizens. I’ve complained before that not enough people read Thomas Hardy, and if more people read about the trials of Jude Fawley, we would know how to help his modern-day descendants.

Ian McCaul has spent his whole life in Kalamazoo, MI, except for a brief detour at Grand Valley State University, where he recently graduated with a degree in English and writing. His short stories appear in the online journals Pulse and Laptop Litmag.