Church's Theory of Social Class in Education
There is a dream to build a society where every person, no matter their background or starting point, has equal access or opportunity for wealth. There are many different approaches people want to use to instantiate this dream, but the one that nearly everyone agrees is vital is improving education, particularly college access.
Academics and activists focus on increasing high school graduation rates, changing admissions standards, or free college, convinced that a piece of paper can create wealth access. Exploring this red herring is beyond the scope of this piece, but simple first principles thinking can give you the intuition: if everyone goes to college and gets a degree, any credentialing signal that a college degree still has is lost. College becomes the new high school and in fifteen years, we’ll be reading about how the solution to its commoditization is free graduate school in a case of runaway credentialism.
Startups focus on different tactics, generally trying to replace the labor market credential, although a few also attempt to glom on a status signifier. This can take the form of coding bootcamps, micro-credentialing, or the new “Stanford MBA.” Thinkers like David Perell and Nat Eliason often tout the coming death of college. However, there’s been no decrease in students applying for undergraduate degrees and many colleges are actually seeing record applications. If you talk to someone outside the Silicon Valley bubble, the idea that college degrees are going to become meaningless in the coming decades would get you laughed out of the room. The entire push for free college is predicated on the belief that college degrees are necessary for the achievement of prosperity.
The Impact of Social Class
Traditional theories of social class posit a single ladder going from low to middle to high. However, Michael Church argues that American social class consists instead of three parallel ladders, with increasing levels of wealth available at the top: Labor, Gentry, and Elite. Socioeconomic status can vary across the ladders. Folks at the top of the Gentry ladder are often far wealthier than those at the bottom of the Elite ladder, who earn middle class salaries in the most expensive cities on the planet.
Money is not the separating marker. Labor success comes from working hard (in the truest sense of the word) and successful management skills. Increasing success on the Gentry ladder comes from more education, working and living at an interesting place, and being up-to-date with the latest missives and language of the New York Times. Climbing the Elite ladder requires accumulation of leverage and capital.
Current educational conversations draft off these social class ideas, if not explicitly, because that would be too gauche. We prefer to talk instead about “democratizing access” and “opening up opportunity.” What’s really important, however, is these social class ideas subtly reveal to you what won’t happen in the future.
Coding bootcamps are often cited as examples of what the future of education could look like, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine for the end of traditional college. They are certainly worthy attempts to make the lucrative career of software engineering more “accessible.” To put it more plainly, coding bootcamps help lower Labor transition to lower Gentry.
However, what they won’t do is change what most 18-year-old kids born into the Gentry or Elite class choose to do when they graduate high school---which is to go to college.
But if you’re reading this, a whole lot of you are probably thinking: isn’t it cheaper and more logical to spend nine months at a bootcamp versus four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars for the same knowledge?
Rational people look at this ridiculous system and argue that universities will collapse when people realize there are superior, more cost-effective options.
A traditional four year college is not merely a labor market credential. It is a consumption good for parents and students that doubles as a status/class signifier.
For the majority of American parents, college is the stamp of validation for their parenting. They can and will remain deeply uncomfortable with any non-traditional choice that will intuitively feel like they’re providing an inferior alternative for their child. Students, highly attuned to status, will feel the same pressure.
College is fundamental to the “American experience.” Comparing American college to college anywhere else in the world is a fallacy. Thanks to the ubiquity and influence of American media, people across the globe know what an American college is supposed to be like: ivy-covered walls, big quads, red solo cups at frat parties, and the football game on the weekends. It is a unique consumption good that is imprinted upon children from birth by our society and media to be the culmination and reward for the work they do in K-12.
What 18-year-old wants to voluntarily skip out on that?
If you still doubt that college is a consumption good, look at the admissions scandal. All of those kids, and likely their kids’ kids, were set for life, yet the parents still wanted to bribe universities for that bright shiny stamp of approval. Men’s lacrosse is now one of the fastest-growing sports in America as parents try to find ways to game the system. Why? Because if their children don’t get into a good school, they worry about being perceived as bad parents. For a child, it marks them as a failure. This kind of deep cultural imprinting isn’t going to change overnight.
America has an uncomfortable relationship with social class in that it’s something we can’t talk about plainly because we so strongly believe in equality. To the majority of parents and children, forcing them to accept alternative forms of higher education, no matter how rational, would feel deeply unfair, especially if there are others still going to traditional college.
Contrary to popular belief, college is highly defensible and will continue to be. It will still be the aspiration of the vast majority of children and parents. Forget Stanford, even the University of Maryland is not going away anytime soon. If anything, I believe the larger push will be to ensure more kids can go to four year colleges in the name of equality than “rational alternatives” like bootcamps.
A future of “College-for-All” is far more likely than no college.
What bootcamps might be able to do is kill the long tail of community colleges, technical universities, and University of Phoenix-types that currently target the Labor class. Providing an alternative to these, some of which are borderline scams, is a worthy goal, but it’s not nearly as totalizing a transformation as many in Silicon Valley would like to believe is coming.
While I'm all ears to any founder who has an idea that could blow up the current higher ed system, I'm more excited than most for startups that see an opportunity to create massive change by working within the current system. There’s at least one stealth startup I know of that’s building with this framework in mind, but there are likely lots of greenfield opportunities here
To recap, my argument is that four year college is a highly defensible business and will continue to attract increasing amounts of students, with demand potentially subsidized by the government with “College-For-All” programs. Startups that want to sell to the largest number of people should build tools and programs with this in mind. Most American students will still be going through this system so increasing their educational and post-educational outcomes is a noble endeavor, even if it is not a revolution.
The Future of Power
What about David Perell’s kids or Nat Eliason’s kids? Are they really not going to send their kids to college? Is this preference falsification, as some will claim and when the time comes they’ll dutifully ship their kids off to Stanford and Harvard?
What I see instead is that the future of power is going to shift. College is already starting to lose some of its prestige and signaling capability, particularly amongst the technological elite. This will only accelerate as the removal of admissions standards like the SAT/ACT proliferates nationwide. Gifted programs, advanced math, and other rigorous classes will also decrease in public K-12.
In response, many of the children of Elites will exit out to private schools or homeschools. They will be encouraged to code on Replit, design on Figma, deploy smart contracts on Ethereum, and make videos on YouTube. Many won’t go to college, but will apply to Y Combinator. These kids will be encouraged to build, not memorize, and learn skills relevant in a knowledge economy. Instead of learned helplessness, they will solve problems and experience the joy of learning. Startups like Primer and Synthesis are early examples, but I expect we’ll see many more built.This is the area of edtech I’m by far the most excited about: there’s so much opportunity for experimentation and unique systems of learning that can be built thanks to the Internet. The pie is large here and I doubt there will be only one winner here.
In two decades, every American child will have the “human right” to go to college, subsidized by the taxpayer, just as everyone starts to wake up to the fact that many of those with the most power and wealth do not go to college anymore.
The children of tech Elites will happily experiment with these programs, their parents secure in the fact their children are in no danger of falling to the Labor ladder if they don’t get a degree or simply delay it. On the other hand, Gentry children will not go to alternate schools. There is simply too much risk: the college degree is seen as their passport to stay in the Gentry class and they will not realize its loss in power until it’s too late.
If their goal is to broaden access to opportunity, edtech startups should largely be focused on a barbell approach for customer acquisition: Elites and Labor.
Here’s one example of how it could potentially work:
Use admissions tests that any kid, regardless of socioeconomic status, can take. There’s probably a lot of room for experimentation here in terms of aptitude, interest, and personality testing as there’s no need to limit to the current paradigm of SAT/ACT
Give scholarships and/or financial aid to some top percentile of kids who qualify
Build a shared education layer across the Internet with localized microschools that can scale nationwide
The last is particularly important because while the Internet can drastically reduce costs, most Labor kids will not have the luxury of a parent at home that can homeschool or take care of them during the day. If there’s a significant B&M and/or teacher cost, edtech startups may find it tough to scale without making revenue from wealthy admits who are good fits based on testing.
Combined with trade schools and coding bootcamps, Labor children would have multiple options with clear opportunity.
If they went to traditional K-12, they could go to a coding bootcamp and punch a ticket to the lower Gentry and a comfortable job.
Alternatively, they could go to vocational training schools and climb up the Labor ladder.
If they went instead to an edtech startup and were duly inclined, they could learn how to start companies or be creators, vaulting themselves into playing the Elite ladder game.
Most Labor children will still go the traditional route. Media and institutions will be drilling into their heads every day that college is their only path to success. Startups will have a very hard time selling to this audience. However, they can still try to provide a real alternative to a market that will still be more receptive than traditional Gentry, where there will likely be essentially zero uptake in the near future.
This is how you create the closest thing to real equal opportunity. It’s not through fairytale visions of the future, where everyone has a cushy job in academia or the New York Times after going to college. It’s also not a future where everyone needs to start a company as some Silicon Valley technophiles will argue. Instead, people are given clear options and the ability to succeed based on their unique skills and interests.
The economics of startups like the one I suggested before are certainly tough. Analogs like Lowell and Stuyvesant are public high schools, funded by the taxpayer, and don’t need to show direct ROI. Startups will face the very real pressure of catering only to Elite children who will be clamoring for these services especially as the decreasing value and increasing commoditization of college degrees becomes clear.Unlocking a business model that can meaningfully scale to serving all customers, regardless of social class, is a difficult problem that founders will have to tackle.
However, a difficult problem doesn’t mean an unsolvable problem. There are likely many solutions I’m not thinking of that the right entrepreneur will have a unique insight to: founders are special and able to see the future in the way few others can.
Thinking about edtech through a social class lens can help you understand the demand side without being unrealistic about human preferences and motivations. You can tailor your startup to target underserved customers while remaining clear about your value proposition.
Over the coming decades, college will be more entrenched than ever, buoyed further by government subsidization. However, at the same time, the future of power is going to be outside college through children who go to edtech startups and learn to build the future. I hope startups can build tools, programs, and places of learning that ensure that anyone who is motivated has equal opportunity to access this power, regardless of their social class or background.
This is just a starting point and I plan on writing a couple more pieces on the topic of education, including why this shift in power is occurring as well as what factors I would look for as an investor when looking at edtech startups. If this piece resonated with you or even if you strongly disagree, please let me know.
I’d also love to talk to anyone who’s building something in the space and jam on ideas.
Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks to Leo Polovets, Ayush Sharma, and Stańczyk for reading early drafts of this piece.
Anecdotally, Jason Brennan shared on a recent Village Global podcast that there are kids in Germany now getting Ph.D’s just to get a job at BMW. Like the fact that federal subsidization of student loans leads to tuition inflation, these outcomes are actually fairly obvious. However, most people prefer magical thinking about incentives and how economics works.
It’s a very good question to ask yourself: “What game am I playing? Is it the game I want to be playing?” Most of the current obsession around “breaking into VC” is really a desire to play the Elite game, the 2020s version of becoming an investment banker. The constant battles over whether you should work weekends is also a subset of this: if you’re on the Elite ladder, working weekends is worth it because wealth can be created nonlinearly. It’s also another interesting example of the barbell effect: often, the Gentry class is the only one that can choose not to work weekends.
This is also why people get so excited with thousands of retweets or shares when they hear about students who are the first in their family to attend college. It’s the marker of a transition into a new social class. Any suggestion of pursuing alternatives will feel like blocking upward mobility for these folks.
I really liked Nicole Ruiz’s piece about the importance of having a theory of education in your school. I’m currently reading Mindstorms, which is a great book on the potential for education via the computer. More on this eventually if it sparks some insight.
In a way, this is how colleges already work. Wealthy kids paying full sticker price is an essential part of the financial aid programs of most schools, which is why international students have been increasingly courted.
One similar prediction I would also make is that alternative forms of K-12 education could accidentally end up overindexed on male students. Girls are doing much better than boys in traditional schooling now and many parents are facing the maddening situation of being told they must medicate their kids just for being rambunctious and high-energy as young boys tend to be. Parents in these situations or similar ones where their boys are underperforming in school might be more willing to take a shot at alternatives. Then, if the shift of power goes as I suspect, we may quickly go from “What’s wrong with boys?” to “We have a gender gap problem.”