Education is supposed to be the best way up the social ladder, but sometimes it seems like college reinforces class boundaries rather than breaking them. College — as we all know — is expensive. There isn’t enough financial aid to go around, and only affluent families or those who’ve saved up can afford to pay full-price tuition. As a result, the student debt total now exceeds credit card debt in the United States.

Partly because of how expensive tuition is, it’s common for students across all income levels to work while in college. But there’s a difference between working to have some spare change and working to pay rent. When your rent or food budget depends on how many hours you work, you have to work more hours, and those are hours that students who don’t have to work can spend on academics or extracurricular activities. If you need a job to pay the rent, you can’t afford to be as selective in terms of choosing one that’s relevant to your career goals.

Unpaid internships accentuate the problem. One need understand only the concept of opportunity cost — that even when you aren’t paying money for something, you’re still forgoing the money you could have been making doing something else — to see why they are a problem. Unpaid internships can offer great experiences, connections, a useful line on your resume and an edge in landing choice jobs after graduation. But for many students, going a whole summer without a paycheck isn’t an option. And while you can learn useful skills at any job, the paid student jobs with the most hours available tend to be less relevant to future career goals.

Like the rest of society, students tend to hang out with people in the same social class. This isn’t always the case, and I don’t believe it’s intentional — it’s usually a matter of convenience. You’re looking for housing in the same price range and are more likely to end up in the same neighborhood or building. When you go out together, you’re willing and able to spend the same amount of money. No one wants to be the one friend who can’t go to Mexico on spring break or who can’t chip in to pay for the birthday girl’s dinner, or to feel like they can’t do the activities they want because they don’t want to embarrass a friend who can’t afford it. But the result is that most students’ networks are composed disproportionately of people in the same social class. Which means that when looking for a job, high-income students — who are already more likely to end up in high-income jobs — will also have the aid of their network of high-income friends, and low-income students won’t.

While more low-income students are going to college than in the past, the increase in low-income students’ enrollment hasn’t kept pace with increases in high-income enrollment. The result is that, according to research done here at the University of Michigan, the gap between the percentage of wealthy and poor Americans who complete a four-year degree has widened by 14 percent in the last 30 years.

And there’s another problem: While the number of low-income students who enroll in college is already low — the Brookings Institute estimates fewer than 30 percent of those in the bottom quartile enroll in a four-year program — many of these students don’t graduate. All those programs pushing kids to go to college aren’t going to change anything if the kids don’t finish.

The University of Michigan actually has a lot of great programs to combat these problems, like the Summer Bridge Program to help students adjust to college rigor, and the Comprehensive Studies Program to provide a closer level of support and interaction throughout a student’s college years. There are funds available to support students taking on unpaid internships. And the six-year graduation rate is 90.6 percent, higher than the national average. Outside of the University, programs like the Pathway to Self Sustainability project help students, working with non-profits to provide mentors who stay with students through college.

Both ensuring that the students most in need of help know where to find it and providing the same support for students to finish college as to get them into it will hopefully play a big role in increasing the number of low-income students who graduate from college. Activities that bring together students from different backgrounds can also go a long way. It’s important that education continues to provide opportunities, rather than becoming just another institution preserving the status quo.

Lissa Kryska can be reached at lkkryska@umich.edu.

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