Upward Mobility and Higher Education: Mining the Contradictions in a Worker Education Program

By Schnee, Emily | Radical Teacher, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Upward Mobility and Higher Education: Mining the Contradictions in a Worker Education Program


Schnee, Emily, Radical Teacher


For over half a century, a college education has been seen as the conduit to white collar employment in this country. Yet, the expansion of higher education access and degree attainment has created greater expectations for upward mobility than the job market can bear (Anyon, 2005; Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Lafer, 2002; Nasaw, 1979). In the last decades, institutions of higher education have consistently produced a greater supply of college graduates than available middle class jobs. As the number of college graduates has outpaced careers requiring college level skills, many college graduates end up performing work for which only a high school education is necessary. Increasing numbers of college graduates not only work beneath their educational qualifications, but many of those with a bachelor's degree earn close to the minimum wage (Levin-Waldman, 1999 cited in Anyon). Hence, the contradiction of unfulfilled expectations is a more widespread phenomenon than popularly believed (Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Clark, 1960).

Using the unfulfilled mobility aspirations of adult students in a union-supported college worker education program (WEP) as a lens, this article aims to explore the tension between education for mobility and education for transformation. While working class students often come to higher education in pursuit of social and economic mobility, radical educators, like many who teach at WEP, aspire to teach for critical consciousness and social transformation. 3-he space between these seemingly opposed intentions can be fraught with frustrations on both sides. I argue that honest and explicit consideration of the disparity between students' mobility desires and their realistic prospects for class mobility as a result of their degrees could heighten students' critical consciousness and increase the transformative potential of the worker education program.

Furthermore, I posit that deeper exploration of students' mobility aspirations reveals that these desires are more complex and nuanced than faculty may assume. Rather than a simplistic vision of higher education as fostering individual economic mobility, WEP students' mobility desires spanned a broad spectrum of ideologies and intentions. Students sought mobility for themselves, their families, the advancement of their racial and ethnic communities, and for pursuit of socially transformative work. While the worker education programs' urban and labor studies curricula and progressive pedagogy intersected with students' lived experience to shape their mobility desires in powerful ways, lack of student mobility was ultimately the most potent source of critical consciousness building some students experienced during their tenure in the worker education program. This article aims to show how deeper exploration of students' mobility aspirations could provide a basis for critical consciousness building among working-class students and further enhance the radical potential of the worker education program.

Background

The worker education program where I taught for many years and conducted my research is a union-supported college degree program for working adults that is a satellite center of the public university system in New York City. Students at WEP receive a liberal arts education, in either urban or labor studies, that attempts to connect higher education to a vision of social change. WEP describes itself as committed to "opportunity, support, and empowerment" for adult worker education students and for over twenty years has provided union members college access through active recruitment and generous tuition assistance via their labor unions. WEP prides itself on offering adult students a progressive labor and urban studies curriculum and engaging classes that employ student-centered pedagogies and inspire students to reflect critically on the world. Although vaguely and imperfectly defined, interpreted and enacted differently by all concerned, the program mission assumes education has transformative potential and attempts to live out its connection to the labor movement by linking higher education not just to individual student mobility, but to broader struggles for collective social change. …

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