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The Dangers of Recruiting Low-Income, First Generation College Students into Academia

Summary:
In recent years, philosophers have become more interested in the problem of inclusion. They recognize the profession tends to be filled with people from privileged backgrounds. They worry this reflects unfair biases in admission and hiring. They also worry it hurts the reliability of the field—perhaps we’re just creating an echo chamber because people come from the same background and have the same point of view. I come from a low-income (by American, not world, standards), working class, non-traditional family and was the first person in my family to attend college. But I’ve made it—I have one of the most plum jobs in the academy. Surely, you’d suspect, I’d encourage others from my circumstances to follow my lead, and I’d encourage elite institutions to try to recruit more

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In recent years, philosophers have become more interested in the problem of inclusion. They recognize the profession tends to be filled with people from privileged backgrounds. They worry this reflects unfair biases in admission and hiring. They also worry it hurts the reliability of the field—perhaps we’re just creating an echo chamber because people come from the same background and have the same point of view.

I come from a low-income (by American, not world, standards), working class, non-traditional family and was the first person in my family to attend college. But I’ve made it—I have one of the most plum jobs in the academy. Surely, you’d suspect, I’d encourage others from my circumstances to follow my lead, and I’d encourage elite institutions to try to recruit more graduate students like me.

Not really. Even though the field would benefit from having greater diversity of economic backgrounds, that is not sufficient reason for philosophers to try to recruit the “poor” into philosophy.

We have a high chance of harming such students.

To illustrate with some data from my forthcoming book Good Work if You Can Get It, consider all the first-year PhD students in all fields entering graduate school in the past 20 years. About 50% will earn a PhD, only 21% will ever get any full-time faculty job, only 12-13% will get a tenure-track full-time academic job, while only 4-5% will get a full-time tenure-track research-intensive job. Further, who succeeds and who fails isn’t random–in general, the people who attend elite research universities as undergraduates have a far better chance of succeeding than everyone else. In short, most will fail to get an academic job. While those who leave academia generally end up with decent careers, they generally lose out on higher paying, less risky careers in engineering, law, or medicine.

Money isn’t all that matters. But it’s much easier to say that money isn’t everything when you grew up rich and have rich parents with good connections to fall back upon. For students from low-income backgrounds, it’s important to escape poverty and secure a place in the middle and upper-middle class. 

I don’t mean we should exclude such students. But we should be wary of actively recruiting them for the sake of the profession, when in reality, the bad job market means they have a low chance of making it into our profession. A low-income grad student has a low chance of becoming a professor, but would have had a high chance of being a well-paid medical doctor. We have to ask ourselves, do we really want to encourage first-generation college students from low-income families to play a 1-in-10 winner lottery with their lives? I don’t, at least not for the selfish benefit of improving the epistemic credentials of the profession.

These concerns provide additional reasons why departments have a duty to disclose in more detail their placements. We owe it to poor college students to give them the information they need to make a fair assessment of the risks. How dare we do any less?

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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