This piece is actually rather old, but given the recent article about the “output” of doctors and lawyers, I think this Atlantic story from January is worth publicizing again. While it’s true that it’s accurate to tell poor kids that going to college will make them earn more, but it’s totally the wrong message to send.

As Andrew Simmons wrote:

The black and Latino kids I teach live in Inglewood and West Adams in Los Angeles. Their parents are house-cleaners, truck drivers, and non-union carpenters. When administrators, counselors, and teachers repeat again and again that a college degree will alleviate economic hardship, they don’t mean to suggest that there is no other point to higher education. Yet by focusing on this one potential benefit, educators risk distracting them from the others, emphasizing the value of the fruits of their academic labor and skipping past the importance of the labor itself. The message is that intellectual curiosity plays second fiddle to financial security.

To a certain extent this is understandable. If you want to motivate poor students to succeed, it’s pretty compelling to point out that by studying they can become less poor. But the problem with focusing on this part of college, the byproduct, is that it ends up undermining what education is really about.

My students’ fantasies of the actual work they’d do in a well-paid professional capacity are vague by comparison—practicing law without knowing the difference between civil and criminal litigation or how to prepare for law school, doing business without an understanding of the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship. While the vagueness stems from the lack of models in their communities, it also comes from the lack of imagination with which mentors have addressed their professed college plans. Students hear that being a doctor is great because doctors can make money, enjoy respect, and have a great life. They don’t hear that being a doctor is great because doctors possess the expertise to do great things.

If you want students to have high aspirations and achieve specific goals, it’s very destructive to just present college as something for rich people, or, perhaps even worse, some mysterious factory through which poor people have to pass in order to be processed into rich people.

No, it’s just learning, a lifelong process that begins with blocks in preschool and ends only when one’s life does. Presenting college as part of this process will likely make higher education much more attainable, much more realistic, and much more desirable.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer