Take No Prisoners

8 Ways Universities Disrupt Social Mobility

In a free society, being born poor should not stop an intelligent, capable, hard-working person from becoming prosperous. Social mobility refers to the capacity for people born in a lower social class to transition to a higher social class during their lives. Industries that have historically improved social mobility include professional sports and universities. These meritocracies promote those with the most talent – nobody cares whether LeBraun James or Neil deGrasse Tyson came from a rich family or a poor one.

Universities are also supposed to be pure meritocracies, rewarding students and faculty primarily on their academic accomplishments. Unfortunately, the structure of modern universities and their surrounding educational-industrial complex includes myriad insidious elements that exacerbate the disadvantages faced by less financially secure students. Here are some of the worst offenders.

1. Student loans instead of grants

Student loans are supposed to provide funds for full time students to live on during their studies. Student loans systems generally suffer from two serious problems. First, the amount of money a student receives depends on their parents’ income, regardless of whether those parents are willing or able to contribute to their childrens’ education. Second, in the U.S., Canada and many other countries, you have to pay them back. A $120 000 loan to go to medical school is much more daunting to the child of a medical secretary than to the child of a neurosurgeon. (In some countries, like the U.K., you only pay back a portion of your student loan depending on how much money you make after your education.)

2. Busy work

Universities in general (and business schools in particular) inundate their students with repetitive, unchallenging assignments – busy work. Busy work serves no pedagogical purpose (by definition). You learn nothing from it, and it does not separate good students from bad students. It is primarily used in subjects like business where the material is straightforward. Since faculty cannot or will not provide challenging problems, they make getting through the endless barrage of menial tasks the challenge. This discriminates against students who have to work part time (or even full time) to fund their studies.

3. Lack of evening and distance classes

Again, as many poor students have to work to fund their education, offering classes only during conventional business hours forces students to choose between attending the class or making the money to pay for the classes.

4. Participation marks and punishing absenteeism

When a student has to choose between a work shift and a class, between next month’s rent money and this term’s participation marks, poor students’ marks suffer one way or another. Punishing absenteeism also facilitates pandemics, but that’s an issue for another post.

5. Market-priced student housing

The purpose of a University is not to educate the populace and produce high-quality research, not to turn a profit. When universities are located in areas with high real estate prices, they can accommodate financially challenged students by providing housing at cost. However, where “at cost” means $400/month, and similar apartments in the area go for $800/month, universities smell the opportunity to extract more money from students and provide “market-priced student housing”.

6. Pressuring or forcing students into volunteer work

When I was an undergrad, many professional programs pressured students to engage in “resume-building” volunteer work or unpaid internships. Volunteer work is all well and good when you’re on a full scholarship and daddy pays for your Benz. When you’re already pulling 20 hours/week cleaning a movie theatre to pay your tuition, volunteer work is money out of pocket, plain and simple.

7. Pathetic pay rates for research and teaching assistants

Many faculty view students as cheap (if not free) labour. I got paid less per hour as a research assistant in undergrad than most gas station attendants. Worse, foreign students’ visas often stipulate that they can only work within the university, so they take these jobs regardless of the pay, removing the pressure to increase salaries for lack of willing workforce. Poor students have to turn down more educationally beneficial research jobs in favor of better paying menial labour jobs. In the words of Chris Rock, that is fucked up.

8. The tuition-economy link

Recently the UK elected a conservative government, which drastically cut university funding. In response, universities are tripling their tuition fees, in the middle of a recession. Where tuition fees are directly linked to the economy, they are highest when people have the least money. This flies in the face of basic Keynesian principles … but then, since when have conservatives ever understood Keynes?


One could argue that there are good reasons for all of the practices criticized above. I would simply counter that improving social mobility in society and reducing class discrimination is more important.

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