Social Capital and The Lack Thereof

Graduates walking towards future

I have been watching the PBS NewsHour these past few days to see their week long segment on one of the biggest problems facing American higher education today, namely, the lack of success by incoming students from lower-income households. Here’s the introduction:

More students are enrolling in college, but the percent of students who actually earn a college credential by the age of 24 has only increased significantly for families with the highest household incomes. Between 1970 and 2013, the percent of students earning college credentials from families with incomes in the top quarter of all household rose from 40 to 77 percent.

For students from families in the lowest quarter of all households, attainment of a college credential rose from 6 to just 9 percent.

So why is this occurring if the intelligence and academic proclivity of the two groups are equal through other indicators? In my analysis of the report, it is a lack of what academics call “social capital.”

Let’s have a proper definition here from Comer, 2015.

             I understand social capital as the relationships, norms, and trust acquired in meaningful networks that provide individuals and groups with the capacities to gain the training and tools, or human capital, necessary to participate in the economic and related mainstream of our society. Such participation provides productive and economic benefits to individuals; and/or social and human capital for the society (Putnam 1993, 1995; Coleman 1988; Woolcock 1998).

And to provide a little more accessible illumination of social capital’s nature:

               Individuals acquire social capital in the social and economic networks around them–family and friends, kin and meaningful contacts of the family network; the networks of school and work; economic and governance networks at all levels. Positive interactions with knowledgeable and meaningful family or caretakers in mainstream cultural environments at home facilitate the acquisition of social capital needed for school success (Comer, 2004). Reasonable economic wellbeing makes positive interactions more possible.

In Comer, 2015, he provides an autobiographical sketch that shows how he, coming from a low-income household in an economically-depressed area of Chicago, attained his social capital.

He speaks of how his mother was the housekeeper for some of the most affluent Chicago residents of the time. She would blend in through imitation the best way she could despite her lack of education (she only had 2 years of formal instruction), and Comer’s Father was a Baptist minister respected in the underdeveloped community that he resided in.

So he would have play dates at the affluent employers’ homes and would be taken to places such as museums, baseball games, and travel with social organizations through the Church and school sponsored groups.

So with his mother’s social capital gained through her employment, and his father’s provided by his position in the community, came the ability to pass it on to their children. They were taught through imitation of these other affluent peers and adults how to behave and what to like and do. They adopted much of their culture.

And as for the economic benefits of this social capital, K. Mahmood, 2015, lists that it influences career success (Burt, 1992, and Gabbay and Zuckerman, 1998) and facilitates in finding jobs (Lin and Dumin, 1996). So who you know, and who you’re like, is just as important as what you know.


College Education is More Than Path to Wealth Alone

73f110779A good piece in The Atlantic on how high school students today believe a college education is purely a path to economic prosperity, not an opportunity to awaken intellectually.

The point is also made that this line of thought is prominent amongst lower-income students. I was one of these kids written about and it’s true. With a mother who has an eighth grade education, I did not reside in an affluent neighborhood growing up. So I fell into this trap as I entered college.

But after my initial two years of study at the University of Louisville, I found philosophy, media studies, and sociology, which were priceless in developing my critical thinking skills and have enriched my life immensely.

  Read Here.


New Rules for Work Not for Lower/Middle Class

In this op-ed for the NYT, Tom Friedman speaks about how the old rules of “working hard and playing by the rules” no longer is a guarantee for economic prosperity in American life. Now one must have a secondary school education and expect to learn and relearn throughout one’s life.

But what got me thinking is how these jobs requiring more than a high school diploma, or even more than a two year degree, are vanishing because manufacturing positions are leaving the U.S. for China, Mexico, and India. So those who are hampered by their socioeconomic status and it’s prevailing culture have little chance to be successful in life. We need to get help to the next generation through better primary and high schools and lower the tuition rates at community colleges and universities.

Now these are not easily tackled problems in the United States, but we can do it if we put more of an emphasis on learning in our popular culture, I believe, for one. It’s not cool amongst Middle/Lower class kids to do homework and raise their hands in class. It’s cool to play sports and be the class clown.

A greater cultural emphasis on getting a good education, and providing those opportunities to all people despite SES, is our only way forward.


Another Bubble Ready to Pop

How many of these financial bubbles can there be?  I remember a brief mention of a student loan bubble in an episode of PBS’ “Frontline” that stuck in the back of my mind after seeing it.  The bubble wasn’t the focus of the episode but it seemed like something that should have been getting more attention.  Looks like it is gaining some more press as indicated by this article and interview with Professor Robert Reich.  Then I saw another article posted the same day just a few hours later that argues there is no crisis and we should pretty much just ignore it.  So I read this thinking it might put this issue to rest in my mind and there will likely be no bubble popping.

It failed miserably.

In fact, the article arguing against the idea of a bubble seems to only reinforce its inevitable arrival.  The only statements contained in this piece to say this crisis isn’t coming is a few experts informing us they don’t believe it will happen.  They back this up with virtually zero information or statistics to support their case.  So we just have to take their word for it that it won’t happen.  Sounds great.  I’m sure no expert said the housing and derivative bubbles would never come despite the writing on the wall and that worked out perfect because they never came…oh, wait.  We got hit with both of those if memory serves.

That being said, let’s look at some of the info given that should calm our fears of this potential crisis.  The first is student loan debt has nearly doubled in the past five years from $600 billion to over $1 trillion.  As stated, this total “exceed(s) the amount of credit card debt and auto loans.”  The rationale for the increase is that more people are out of work and are going back to school to change careers and the bubble will not burst because most of these new graduates will get jobs allowing them to pay off the debt.  Sounds reasonable.  Except for one factor.

What happens if the job market doesn’t recover to whatever point they are assuming it to hit?  They have to be guessing the unemployment rate is going to continue its recent decrease into the near future.  But what happens if it levels off or begins to rise?  What then with the student loan debt?  We’ve been down this road before.  We were informed by experts housing prices would never fall and the bubble would never burst.  Are we going to fall for this again?

Another factor this article mentions but doesn’t delve into is this debt slowing the process of new grads purchasing homes and cars and other consumer goods because of the chuck of money taken out of their checks by student loans.  Think about the effect of that on the economy.  It potentially slows any recovery process even more since this money is going to already wealthy financial institutions instead of being spread around to other areas of the economy.  This slower recovery means less job growth.  Which then leads to more loan defaults. Which then gets us to another bursting bubble.

Some experts are telling us not to worry.  Again.  Well, Professor Robert Reich is an expert as well and he says to worry.  Judging from this glance at the numbers, I have to lean toward him being right.