Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 3

After I graduated from the University of Virginia in 1991, I changed my career plans from law to academia. I was clearly better suited to the latter, and circumstances seemed favorable. There were many reports of a glut of lawyers on the labor market. Also, the early ’90s were a rare time when people expected a boom in academic hiring. Experts on the academic world predicted the boom based on two demographic facts: (a) many older professors would soon be retiring and (b) the Baby Boomers’ children would soon be going to college.

In the end, of course, the new golden age failed to arrive. When old profs retired, colleges cancelled some positions and hired many adjunct professors. For myself, I tried to overcome obstacles through hard work, but found a remarkable amount of corruption. I did meet professors who were honest, open-minded, and fair, but they were in the minority.

I obtained an MA in history at Virginia, specializing in modern European, and particularly British, political history. I wanted to continue to the PhD, and I applied to programs at other, higher rated institutions. Virginia was deficient in both funding and placement, and I wanted to give myself the best chance possible.

Over the next couple years, I wound up teaching community college to pay the bills and obtain experience. I applied to different PhD programs in history. I applied to institutions that had leading experts in my specialty fields, as well as overall prestige. On that basis, my first choice was Columbia University.

There was another reason that Columbia appealed to me. I wanted to get into non-academic writing as well. In fact, I had considered journalism school. But every J-school person I spoke to said that it was important to have experience, at least with student newspapers, before you applied. I had wanted to write for one of the two student papers at Virginia, but, for reasons I discussed in Part 2, I didn’t have time for any extracurricular activities.

Had I enrolled at Columbia, I would have had a home base in New York City. I planned to pursue summer internships at prominent newspapers and magazines. I figured that with clips, contacts, and an Ivy League doctorate, I would be able to publish writing on politics and particularly issues related to my academic expertise.

My grades and recommendations were excellent, and I achieved high scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). I ranked among the top 1% on the verbal test and on the history subject test. I believe my writing samples and personal statement were very strong. In the latter, I tried to show how adversity had made me relentless in my studies and enthusiastic about scholarship.

I was admitted to Columbia, but denied funding. I contacted the professors and tried to change their minds. They did not relent, but encouraged me to apply again later. After compiling some community-college teaching experience, I re-applied. I was admitted without funding again. So there is exactly one reason why I don’t have an Ivy League degree or experience at leading New York-based publications: I was not born rich.

I tried other graduate programs as well. Cornell rejected me outright. I inquired about the program at Brown, but the professor who would have been my advisor told me not to bother applying.

When I looked at the undergraduate institutions of the students who did enroll at Columbia, Cornell, and Brown, I noticed that a grossly disproportionate number had bachelor’s degrees from the Ivy League. No one has compiled detailed statistics on the social backgrounds of grad students at the Ivy League, but it has been clear for some time that those institutions are socially exclusive at the undergraduate level.

I wonder how many sons or daughters of manual laborers enrolled at Columbia’s Department of History during the 1990s, that alleged era of new-found diversity consciousness. Did it happen even once? I wonder about Brown and Cornell, too. What I can say is that of all the graduate students and professors whose backgrounds I came to know, none were working class. They were mostly upper-middle class, and that was especially true of Ivy Leaguers.

I was admitted with funding to the history PhD program at Washington University in St. Louis and enrolled in 1996. I suppose that Wash. U.’s defenders would say that the university deserves credit for admitting and funding someone from my background. But the truth is that the administration funds graduate students in history mainly to provide cheap grading and teaching assistance for the bourgeois Ivy Leaguers and Oxbridge grads on the faculty. History grad students at Wash. U. don’t really have the chance to rise to the same professional level as their professors, and the administrators know that.

Of course, I should never have gone to Wash. U. In my defense, the program’s placement efforts were more successful at the time. The academic job market got worse thereafter. Also, I knew that I never wanted to go into business. I had seen what standard business practice meant for workers like myself, my friends, and family members. I wanted to work to change that system, not join it.

As I entered the dissertation phase of the program at Wash. U., I decided that I needed to try to reach a wide, non-academic audience with writing on social class in America. No other writers dealt with that issue properly. I submitted a lot of articles and looked for better career alternatives than college teaching.

The Wash. U. history PhDs who got jobs tended to get them after years on the academic market. Even then, some became adjuncts or high-school teachers. Many of those who had to wait had someone to support them in the meantime. I didn’t. Also, those who landed tenure-track jobs generally wound up with bad jobs. They had low pay and heavy course loads that made writing of any kind difficult. Finally, I got hired as an archive assistant at Wash. U. Hey, it seemed like the best option at the time.

Over the years, I have sent countless submissions and pitches to publications around the English-speaking world. I’ve applied for many entry-level magazine/newspaper jobs, and tried to land research positions in the union movement and at progressive think tanks. Those applications were unsuccessful. I published a lot of articles in alternative publications, but never made any real money. If you look at the people who hold the paying positions in academia and the writing business, you will see a proliferation of Ivy Leaguers (and disproportionately preppies). Likewise, many paid writers previously held unpaid internships in NYC. I was locked out of that world due to my social class.

I don’t deny that I made mistakes, but my mistakes should not have been so costly. Had I been from the right social class, they would not have been considered mistakes at all. That is the issue.

I never wanted another working-class person to face the elitist barriers that stood in my way. But it happens all the time, and no major media outlet will take the matter seriously. Working-class people should not be so grossly under-represented in leading undergraduate and graduate programs. When we overcome obstacles and achieve at a high level, we should not be excluded because we “only” attended public institutions.

Access to a leading university should never be a matter of ability to pay—at either the undergraduate or graduate level. Nor should anyone have to take out loans to pay for higher education. It is now almost impossible to make a decent living in safe working conditions without a college degree. Making a profit off someone who needs access to college is the moral equivalent of charging a fee to exit a burning building.

Likewise, hiring and promotion decisions about people in their 30s and older should not be based on which colleges admitted them when they were teenagers, or which graduate schools admitted them when they were in their 20s. Success in landing paid writing gigs should not depend on attending an elite college or prep school, nor on working free internships in New York City while your parents pay your bills. Those means of determining fitness for top jobs were devised to keep those posts in the hands of a rich, well-connected elite. It is class bias hiding behind the terms “academic excellence” and “professional development.”

That problem is endemic to society, particularly in the class-ridden U.S.A. But the realms of academe and writing are ruled by class bigotry at its most fanatical.

If you’re a working-class person with stories to share about your experiences in higher education, please e-mail them to me at