Salvation or Safety Net? Meanings of 'College' Among Working- and Middle-Class Young Adults in Narratives of the Future

Social Forces. 97(2) 559–582, 2018.

INSEAD Working Paper No. 2018/24/OBH

39 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2018 Last revised: 16 Feb 2021

See all articles by Jennifer Silva

Jennifer Silva

Bucknell University

Kaisa Snellman

INSEAD - Organisational Behavior

Date Written: June 27, 2018

Abstract

In the wake of college-for-all policy, college aspirations among working-class and middle-class young adults have converged, yet class gaps in enrollment and completion persist. Building on previous literature that uncovers the structural barriers that block working-class mobility, we examine the specific narrative content that working-class and middle-class young adults and their parents attach to the broad “college for all” message. We investigate how their narratives of imagined futures shape how they perceive the riskiness of college decisions. In-depth interviews with 51 young adult-parent dyads suggest working-class young adults envision college as a route to moral worth and an escape from their current grim reality – what we term, “salvation.” Their narratives lend self-efficacy and optimism to their lives, but are not organized in ways that protect them from the increasingly risky college landscape. Middle-class parents assume control over the meanings of college and deploy a narrative of insecurity about downward mobility in a competitive economy. By contesting the meaning of college as a vehicle for self-realization, this narrative buffers youth from risk even as it constrains feelings of self-determination in the transition to adulthood.

Keywords: Education, Inequality, Social Class, Cultural Sociology

JEL Classification: I24, I26, I22, I28

Suggested Citation

Silva, Jennifer and Snellman, Kaisa, Salvation or Safety Net? Meanings of 'College' Among Working- and Middle-Class Young Adults in Narratives of the Future (June 27, 2018). Social Forces. 97(2) 559–582, 2018., INSEAD Working Paper No. 2018/24/OBH, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3203595 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3203595

Jennifer Silva (Contact Author)

Bucknell University ( email )

701 Moore Ave.
Lewisburg, PA 17837
United States

Kaisa Snellman

INSEAD - Organisational Behavior ( email )

Boulevard de Constance
Fontainebleau 77305
France

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