When I decided to return to graduate school I was about as devoid of prestige as one can be. I was old, from a no-name undergraduate university (worse, maybe, an HBCU!), I lacked social capital, my undergraduate performance was fine but not stellar, and I did not know the difference between sociology and anthropology.
Fortunately, I grew up with a library card and a mother who made it seem like the passport to everything I would ever need to know in life. My motto is if they’ve written a book about it, I can likely figure it out.
So, that’s where I started. I went to the library and the bookstore (remember those??) and I spent months poring over everything written about academia and graduate school. Along the way I saw lots of stories like this one from Slate today. It’s on the far right extreme of the “don’t go!” advice market but it is indicative of what that advice entails. It’s some combination of an assessment of the academic labor market, the odds of tenure track appointment, the high cost of graduate school, and the emotional toil.
That advice is not wrong.
It is, however, a bit disingenuous about the implied comparison always being made. Namely, that one can do better.
But, what if one can’t do better? Like me, five years ago?
This is the case for many black students and I will try to unpack the Pandora’s box of structural and social processes that make it different. I do this not to judge what is, again, not wrong advice. Instead, I do it so that we can think more fully about how complicated any blanket advice is and how we should always interrogate our position in our advice and, most importantly, how that might be different than the position of the people on the receiving end of our (usually well-meaning) advice.
It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp
As the saying goes, when white America catches a cold, black America already has the flu.
The labor market has always been inhospitable to black labor. That has changed some, through a combination of social policy and well, social policy. But, as Sharon Collins points out in her carefully crafted empirical analysis of black class mobility, the changes that wrought the growth of the black middle class were fragile (indeed we’ve already witnessed the end) and primarily driven by public sector hiring. There are lots of reasons for that. One that is important to remember here is that the public sector is most sensitive to political mandates. The private sector is significantly less so. As a result, black people have been over-represented in bureaucracies because bureaucracies are most sensitive to affirmative action policies.
That’s not changed overly much. That’s why Obama’s reduction of the public sector as the private sector picked up hiring over the past three years has been devastating for black workers. We work in the public sector because equal opportunity hiring laws counteract biases in hiring that make a white felon more likely to be hired than a black applicant with no criminal history. We stay in bureaucracies because those same equal opportunity laws require that promotion criteria be explicit, published and uniformly applied regardless of sex, race, gender, etc. which counteracts the documented bias that transmutable, opaque “discretion” produces.
Credentialism is often rewarded in bureaucracies because it is a simple, relatively unambiguous designation of “qualified” that conforms to bureaucratic desires to remove discretion from decision-making. Ergo, credentialism — literally here just meaning the process of formalizing knowledge or qualifications by attaching it to some kind of certificate or degree — can be disproportionately important to black folks who are disproportionately hired by, employed in, and promoted according to the standards of bureaucracies, which reward having a credential.
That makes graduate school a lot less stupid of a decision.
I see this in my interviews with for-profit students, many of whom are black. They are not crazy when they intuit that they “need some letters behind [their] name”. They are actually pretty accurately assessing the economic and social landscape in which they are embedded.
Plainly put, black folks need credentials because without them our “ghetto” names get our resumes trashed, our clean criminal records lose out to whites with felony convictions, and discretion works against our type of social capital (and weak ties and closure of information) to amount to a social reality that looks and feels a lot like statistical discrimination.
A graduate degree can also signal that you are not “that kind of black person”. It can say that not only, ideally, do you have some special skills but that you won’t go all Sapphire in a department meeting or steal someone’s hubcaps out of the company parking lot, or whatever the en vogue, deeply seated fear is that motivates implicit discrimination in hiring decisions these days. We are not crazy when we think we need more education for the privilege of being underemployed.
But Academia Is Different
Well, it sure is different (*ka-ching*), but the difference is likely not as acute or meaningful for some of us as it is for others.
Academia may not be a traditional bureaucracy but we forget that public colleges are embedded in state governments, making them more like the public sector is some ways than the private sector. That is particularly true when you account for the fact that many black PhDs end up working in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, many of which are part of state college systems. It is not totally beyond the realm of possibility then that black students should engage with some sectors of higher education similarly to how we have engaged the Post Office. That is to say, credentialism is rewarded and, thus, we should pursue it.
The nature of the rewards, however, seems to be what trips up a lot of this advice.
And that is rooted in some fundamental, unexamined privilege.
It is difficult to be embedded in higher education today, particularly if you study it, and not be acutely aware that academic labor is changing and likely not for the better. Adjunct labor conditions are pretty deplorable: low pay, long hours, little prestige, no mobility, etc. When we are in that we can forget that our crappy jobs can be someone else’s upward mobility.
I suspect part of our not understanding this is ideological. To recognize that crappy is relative is to undermine our own fragile, tenuous class consciousness. It’s an old problem. Unions had similar issues as they tried to bring black, brown and white labors together through their shared position in the class structure. The problems arise when your shared position isn’t exactly shared. Focusing so narrowly on class to the exclusion of structural racial projects can put you in this quagmire. Black poverty is not the same as white poverty. That’s not the fault of white poor people but is a function of a complicated mix of social constructs, organizational processes, politics, history and probably magic. It’s complicated. It is also inconvenient, particularly when you really want and need people to focus on deplorable class conditions. So we like to sometimes ignore it. We do so to our peril.
When we obscure those meaningful differences we end up counseling black students considering graduate school that it is a waste of time and money. We do that because our class consciousness says this whole pyramid hierarchy is a scheme and those at the bottom are losing.
The thing with losing is there’s always some construct of what constitutes “winning”. The dominant construct of winning is rooted in privilege and biases.
Winning is different for different folks. I think of Boudon‘s work which I likely oversimplify when I call it a cross-sectional, longitudinal, empirical analysis that conludes that we’re always from where we’re from. Apologies to the philosopher Rakim but sometimes it ain’t where you’re at but is indeed all about where you’re from. Part of Boudon’s argument for me is about social distance being as important to understanding mobility as status occupational/income/prestige outcomes. Basically, if I get a master’s degree that increases my labor value to $45,000* it can sound like crap to a person who went to graduate school, got a PhD and earns $50,000. However, if my parents didn’t have their GEDs and I grew up helping my mom clean banks after hours for her janitorial freelance business — one of her three jobs — I have actually traveled quite a bit of social distance. That can make the value of my graduate degree different than the value of yours.
Don’t Go! Unless…
Maybe too many people are going to graduate school but not too many of all people are going to graduate school. I am suspicious of declarations of an institution being dead the minute I show up to it in my party dress. But, I’m not a starry eyed loon when it comes to the fissures of distress in the academic labor market.
They are there. They are real and we should engage them. But on the road to the revolution let us not forget that folks still got to live.
Let us not engage the change that needs to happen in academic labor by telling people who could stand to benefit the most from credentials that we have socially constructed, through racism and classism and sexism, as more necessary for some than others that graduate school is a net negative. Because it is not.
Instead, let us consider a calculation of social distance, aspiration, returns on investment, prestige and cost. Let us give students a patchwork quilt of tools to determine that graduate school math for themselves rather than a blanket default condemnation that is rooted in our own social position, experiences, and privileges.
Surely, an entry-level administrative job or low-status teaching job is not the life of the mind with summers off and adoring undergraduate groupies. But it can represent a legitimate career option for someone who is not choosing among hopeful tenure jobs at the Ivies but instead is hoping for a call back when her name is Lakeisha or a job offer when she doesn’t have a family member who is an alumnus, or for whom there is no implicit “better” career option out there just waiting for him to show up.
And I am talking to myself here. I check myself constantly on leanings towards some prestigious option that might exist for me but not for others (and it may not even exist for me). I talk to my interview subjects or I go home for the holidays and I make sure I remember that as we are studying and advocating for structural change, real people have to navigate those structures every day as a matter of survival. If they should overcome the hurdles of an inauspicious low-status start in life (like I did) and discover that academic labor is even a thing that exists, let’s not advise them to do something better when all empirical evidence suggests that for black, qualified workers there often isn’t a “better”.
If you can’t consider that in blanket advice to “don’t go!” please send your students to someone else, somewhere else.
*I don’t argue that we should not be concerned about differential returns to credentials but our concern and advocacy should not obscure or denigrate what is, at the individual level, a legitimate, rational choice that many black students face.
ETA: My mentor, himself black with a PhD, had some comments to make on this subject on Twitter. See Sandy Darity’s reasons for a black student to consider carefully advice that he or she not attend graduate school.