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College for What? . A Sociological user’s Guide to the University. Dr. Richard Sullivan Illinois State University. “Why are you Going to College?”. What do you expect to get from a college education?. The College Knowledge Gap.

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college for what

College for What?

A Sociological user’s Guide to the University

Dr. Richard Sullivan

Illinois State University

why are you going to college
“Why are you Going to College?”
  • What do you expect to get from a college education?
the college knowledge gap
The College Knowledge Gap
  • We have a fundamental misunderstanding about what a college education is all about (or should be about)
  • Based on widely held presumption that college is vocationaltraining for a specific job in a specific field
  • Perpetuated by policy makers, media, universities, counselors, students, parents and peers
consequences of college knowledge gap
Consequences of College Knowledge Gap
  • Wasted family and public resources
    • Only 1 in 3 students who start will finish in four years
    • And 1 in 4 freshman don’t make it to their second year!
  • Opportunity costs and lost life chances
  • Alienated Students and Worried Parents
  • Effects affect first generation students more
goals of sullivan s book the misunderstood university
Goals of Sullivan’s Book: “The Misunderstood University”
  • Argument:
    • Widespread misunderstanding about the nature of the university and its role in society leads to misuse of family and social resources, lost educational opportunities, alienated students and high failure rates.
  • Central Propositions:
    • The university is a sorting mechanism
    • A college education is not job training
    • Students are there to acquire cultural capital
the university is a sorting mechanism
The University is a Sorting Mechanism
  • Arum and Roska (2010)
    • 46% of students learn nothing after two years of college
    • 36% show no improvement in intellectual capacity after four years
  • Bowles and Gintis (1976, 2002)
    • While there is ample evidence about relationship between years of education and income, there is no correlation between cognitive skills and income
  • Clawson and Page (2011)
    • Odds of going to college are same for smart poor kids and stupid but rich kids (p. 36)
it s not about job training
It’s not about Job Training
  • American workers – even educated ones – are trained on the job.
  • Only about half of people work in a job that is directly related to their major field five years after graduating (Robst 2007).
  • Businesses hire (and promote) people with critical thinking, problem-solving and communication skills. They want their people trained in liberal arts (WSJ, 2012).
  • You can’t major in Business at Harvard, or Nursing at Yale or Social Work at Princeton. Why not?
so what are you doing there
So What are you doing There?
  • …Gaining Cultural Capital !!!
    • Types of knowledge used and valued by powerful people in society
      • Arts, politics, literature, science, current events, geography, etc.
    • The more cultural capital you possess, the easier it is to convince powerful people you are an “insider” and the greater access you will have to their world
getting what you came for four rules for success
Getting what you came for: Four Rules for Success
  • Major in what you love!
    • (Re)Learn how to love to learn
  • Learn to Read, Write, and Think
    • Take challenging classes, ask questions, go to talks
  • Study Abroad
    • Expand your world, learn another language
  • Do an Internship
    • Develop professional contacts, gain work experience
what if money were no object
What if money were no object?
  • Video: What if Money Were No Object?
what are recent sociology majors doing
What are Recent Sociology Majors doing?


  • Social Services, Counselors, Psychologists 26.5%
  • Clerical/administrative support 15.8%
  • Management 14.4%
  • Sales, Marketing 10.1%
  • Services 8.3%
  • Teachers, Librarians 8.1%
  • Other Professionals (includes PR and IT) 6.8%
  • Social Science, Researchers 5.7%
  • Others 4.4%
  • **Approximately 10% of recent grads were enrolled in graduate school

Source: ASA Research and Development Department, What Can I Do With a Bachelor's Degree in Sociology? Wave I and Wave II

but show me the money does your major matter
But Show Me the Money! Does your major matter?

Yes….but it’s complicated

  • Initial income is often correlated with major field, but the gap shrinks over time (Choy and Carroll 2008 p.53-4)
  • Some “Occupational Majors” earn more than Liberal Arts Majors (e.g. engineering, health care, business), but some earn less (e.g. social work, education) (NSF 2006)
  • Occupational majors suffer higher “mismatch penalties” (Robst 2007)
  • Liberal Arts majors report higher levels of professional autonomy and personal fulfillment (Wolniak and Pascarella 2005)
why major in what you love
Why major in what you love?

If you love what you’re doing…

You’ll work harder at it.

If you work harder at it,

You’ll learn more.

If you learn more,

You’ll get smarter.

If you get smarter,

You’ll be good at it.

If you’re good at it,

You’ll impress people.

If you impress people,

They’ll reward you (degrees, jobs, promotions, opportunities, proposals, kids, etc.).

If you are rewarded,

You’ll be successful!

why majoring in what you love is the prudent move
Why majoring in what you love is the prudent move
  • Odds are 50-50 …
    • that you’ll end up in a field closely related to your major – even in the “practical” majors (NSF).
  • Money doesn’t buy happiness…
    • beyond $75,000/year money doesn’t improve happiness, enjoyment, sadness or stress (National Academy of Sciences cited in NYTimes 9/11/2010)
  • It won’t do you much good …
    • to be gainfully employed in a field you don’t enjoy. If you don’t like it, you won’t be good at it. If you’re not good at it, you won’t be employed for long.
  • It is likely…
    • that you’ll only have one chance in your life to spend four years dedicated to your educational pursuits. Why squander the opportunity (and the money) in a course of study you don’t like in the hope of landing a job that you won’t enjoy and that may not materialize anyway?
what are you going to do with that
What are you going to do with that ?
  • Some Possible Responses
    • I’m planning to travel, find love, raise a family, make a difference, be involved in my community, and read a lot. Why, what should I do?
    • Whatever I want.
    • I intend to leverage the cultural capital I gain in my education to move up the ranks of the class hierarchy.
    • Be your boss.
    • Climb a mountain, learn a language, learn to play the piano, recycle more, consume less, and eat right.
    • Hang it on the wall. What did you do with yours?
    • Use what I learn to make my part of the world a better place.
    • I plan to teach. To start with, I’ll teach others that a college education is not really about vocational training.