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The study reveals deep class and material divisions between educators and society at large. Can colleges change that?

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Kevin Taylor, professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis, grew up in central Illinois, outside academia. Although his parents never told him to expect money for college, both Taylor and his brother earned doctorates.

“We thought of ourselves as working class,” Taylor said. – Mom was in the restaurant business in the family, and dad was a grocer. I think it’s unusual for someone in my situation to go to college and very unusual to get a Ph.D.”

Taylor is not tenured, and he took out “loan after loan” for his doctoral program because no one advised him to actively seek funding. Although he’s found full-time employment in Memphis — eliminating the need to juggle classes at multiple facilities to scrape together enough income to survive — he says his full-time and full-time colleagues enjoy perks he doesn’t.

“I really feel a strong need to work on myself, to constantly prove myself and to do whatever a fellow incumbent does to get noticed, at the risk of my health and sanity,” Taylor said. “I can’t take vacations or travel because I have to save. My colleagues definitely rest and relax, travel and have disposable income for restaurants and entertainment. I’m not.”

Beyond that, Taylor doesn’t think his socioeconomic background has significantly disadvantaged him, but his experience raises questions about the pervasive divisions that exist in academia. Using data by zip code, a study published earlier this year found that the median household income of childhood professors was 23% higher — or about $14,000 — than the median income for all zip codes.

The study surveyed nearly 47,000 educators in eight different disciplines, including STEM, social sciences and humanities. Her findings show how parents pass on their socioeconomic status to their children, and raise concerns that higher education closes the class rather than promotes social mobility. It also found that one in five teachers boasted at least one parent with a Ph.D.

These results challenged the cherished concept of meritocracy in higher education.

The primary function of universities “is to create an idea of ​​meritocracy in an increasingly unequal society,” said Walter Ben Michaels, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

An effective merit-based system won’t necessarily mean fewer low-income people, Michaels said.

“It would simply mean that part of the wealthy elite comes from poverty rather than wealth,” he said. – Thus, the problem is stratification, first of all.”

According to Aaron Clauset, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, the paper says about academia what previous studies have revealed about other high-profile professions, such as doctors and lawyers. A 2021 study, for example, found that medical students disproportionately come from high income backgrounds.

“We hold the principle of meritocracy very near and dear in the academic environment,” Clauset said. But the paper shows that “accumulated advantages” affect professor evaluations in ways “that appear to undermine the notion of an ideal meritocracy.”

Questions about what he studied and what he taught

The study’s findings raise concerns about knowledge production in academia, said Jenny Brand, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of sociology and statistics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The relative paucity of scholars from less privileged backgrounds may mean a paucity of scholarship that would otherwise reflect diverse interests, values, and perspectivesand perhaps indicates a wealth of scholarship underpinned by a narrow set of experiences.

“At a place like UCLA, we have a very diverse student body, and not nearly as diverse in terms of faculty,” Brand said.

More tenured professors from low socioeconomic backgrounds could change the way research is conducted and discussed in colleges, Brand suggested.

Julie Park, an education professor at the University of Maryland, also argued that the scholarship could suffer from a lack of low-income teachers. She noted that in her field, there is a lot of focus on selective universities, rather than community colleges and open schools.

“Probably if we had a wider range of faculty, we could do more research at a wider range of institutions,” Park said.

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