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Grawemeyer Award winner highlights rarely discussed costs of pursuing a college degree

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Courtesy
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University of Louisville
University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Jennifer Morton won the 2023 Grawemeyer Award in Education from University of Louisville.

When we talk about first-generation college students in this country, we often focus on the pride that these students bring to their families in earning a degree and the financial sacrifices they make.

But there’s another toll that’s rarely talked about: the emotional, social and ethical costs first-generation students take on when they decide to pursue higher education.

Those costs are the subject of a book by University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Jennifer Morton. Morton is among this year’s winners for the Grawemeyer Awards from the University of Louisville.

She talked with LPM education reporter Jess Clark about her work. Below is a Q&A based on their interview. Questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

First off, Jennifer, what made you want to study these less discussed costs of pursuing higher education?

MORTON: The idea from the book came from my first tenure-track job at the City University of New York, CUNY. Most of my students there were the first in their families to go to college or from low-income families. Many were the children of immigrants. So we serve New York City students who are trying to achieve the American dream. And what I saw with my students was that a lot of the sacrifices they were making were not just: working really hard, you know, taking on jobs, financial … being torn between being there for their families and their communities and pursuing their own education.

One cost you highlight is the broken relationships with family, friends and community that can occur when a first-generation or low-income student pursues a degree. How does this play out?

MORTON: So it really depends on the kind of student that we're talking about. The starkest case is probably students from rural communities, who in pursuing higher education and in pursuing upward mobility are often very far from their families. And so often, those families and those communities know that when this talented young person leaves to go to college, they're probably not going to come back. And they might be very supportive and really proud of that student, but that student who has gone on to pursue upward mobility isn't going to be a part of their lives in the same way and in the life of the community in the same way. So that's probably the starkest case.

But even students who are growing up in low-income communities in big cities … they might not go that far, but in some metaphorical way, they're going far. They're going to enter new communities, they're going to enter new social spaces that are going to be very different from the ones in which they were growing up. And that tension can often be difficult to navigate … of feeling both wanting to stay connected to family, but feeling like one has changed and one's life is now in a different social network.

Another cost you describe is that sometimes students feel pressured to give up certain parts of their identity. Can you give some examples of students who faced this dilemma?

MORTON: Yeah, certainly. So one of the young people I talked to — I call her Kimberly, in the book — she was pursuing a master's degree at Harvard, and she had grown up in a low-income family. And she found pressure from the other students to not take her family obligations as seriously as she wanted to take them. You know, some of the students for spring break would go to Iceland or something, and they said, “You should come with us!” And she said, “I can't afford to.” Her mom was not doing economically very well, and so she felt that she had to help her mom financially. And the other students sort of didn't get it. And so this kind of sense of trying to blend in and be a part of this new community, and so feeling like there are parts of oneself that have one has to keep hidden.

What are the long-term impacts of that dilemma on students?

MORTON: So the strivers I talked to who had succeeded, most of them were, you know, really happy with how much they had accomplished and had lives that were economically, and in many other respects, better than that of their parents or the communities in which they had grown up.

But many also felt the kind of guilt and regret about what they had given up in the process. One striver told me he felt like he “had no heart” because he hadn't been there for his family when they had gone through a lot of financial hardship — even though he knew that there was little he could have done as a young person trying to get a college degree. But he felt that he wasn't there in the way that he would have wanted to be there. And that can really weigh on someone later in life when they notice that these relationships are not as close as they used to be, and maybe when they see that a sibling or somebody else who took a different path has stayed connected to the community in a way that they feel they can no longer be.

Your book isn't just focused on describing this problem, but you also have a lot to say about what educators can do to create a new narrative of upward mobility. What does that look like?

MORTON: So I think we should be honest with students about what kind of sacrifices they might have to make in the path of pursuing upward mobility. And sometimes we're nervous about being honest with young people about what they will encounter because we think this will discourage them — that if they knew that they might feel this pressure to change or that they might feel this distance from the people they love, they might not be willing to make the sacrifices they need to move up. But I think that it's important that we're honest with students about what lies ahead and let them make those choices for themselves.

Is there a way that college and higher education institutions can change to help students who are first-generation or coming from low-income families, maintain their connections and their ties to family and community and still pursue higher education?

MORTON: Yeah, that is a really difficult question. I think in some ways colleges can make it easier for first-generation and low-income students to find new community. But some of the problems that strivers are dealing with are the results of decades of underinvestment in education, for example, in rural communities or in jobs. So a striver who grows up in a low-income, rural community might be thinking, "I would like to stay here and be able to give back," but there are no job prospects. So when they go to college, they know that it's unlikely that they will be able to find a way to stay in their community and still reap the benefits of that college degree. And those problems go beyond the university — they’re really problems about how we distribute opportunity across communities.

In thinking about this work, one thing that keeps popping out at me is the language that we use about changing class, you know: “upward mobility.”  It's based in a certain understanding of social hierarchy that we have in our country. Is there a way that you can get your degree and still push back against this social hierarchy that we have?

MORTON: In a way, the hope of my book is that we stop thinking of “mobility” as a measure of opportunity. What we really want is young people to feel like they can lead the lives in which they stay close to the people they love, they have opportunities for careers and economic advancement, and they can invest and build in their communities. And so I think that captures way more than this idea of “mobility,” right? Mobility means you're going to leave your neighborhood and go to a better neighborhood or join a better social class where more opportunities are. I think if we think we want communities to flourish, rather than just individuals to find their way out of that community into a community with more socioeconomic opportunity, then we should be talking about how to help communities flourish.

You're coming at these questions from the perspective of a philosopher, not necessarily a social scientist. How do you think that has influenced your work?

MORTON: What I saw in my students was some of what they were dealing with were — as I think of them — ethical challenges, how to lead a good life. And they found this conflict between being there for family, remaining connected to community, and wanting to pursue a career in education. And I think these are all important parts of a good life. So from the philosopher’s perspective, I think of these as not just social or emotional sacrifices, but really, kind of ethical sacrifices that have to do with what it means to lead a good life. And so that's been my perspective in thinking through these challenges — that they're not just ones we can think of as easily remedied by just changing one's mindset about what one is doing. But really they're deeply important questions about what it means to have the life that one wants.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.