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School Feels Harder When Upward Mobility Isn't Certain

by Katie Moritz
September 13, 2017 | Our Future

When working hard feels pointless, it can be difficult to convince yourself to keep going at the same pace. Most of us have encountered that feeling at some point in our lives. But it turns out it's especially true for students, particularly those who come from families of lower socioeconomic status.

Getting through high school and college is tougher for students from less wealthy families who don't see how a degree will help them move up in the world, research shows. When students have doubts about how much a degree has done for others from similar backgrounds, they have a harder time getting through academic rough patches.

Upward Mobility pbs rewire

On the flipside, previous research has shown disadvantaged students are more likely to succeed despite barriers when they see education as a path toward financial and career success.

The new work, led by researcher Alexander Browman when he was a psychology Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, takes that theory one step further by showing that motivation can be affected by whether the student feels that upward mobility is even possible based on where they live. Seeing other people in their situation fail to move on holds students back.

Browman's team measured students' beliefs about upward mobility in their community. The students who had lower socioeconomic backgrounds or who had doubts about the likelihood of their success were less likely to keep trudging on through academic challenges.

What does this mean for students?

What we see as our path after high school or college can help us or hurt us. If we picture the future and predict more of the same whether or not we finish school, there's less incentive to continue or complete a degree when things get tough or stressful. A college degree has never been worth more in the working world, but it's still difficult to get there.

On the other hand, if we can picture ourselves achieving our goals after high school or college, it's easier to get ourselves through difficult times.

Are you struggling to get through school? Try reminding yourself why you decided to pursue that degree in the first place. Other research on academic success suggests that students should write about their reasons for enrolling and regularly practice positive self-talk. Finding a mentor with a similar background who's living the life you want to live is also helpful. Have regular talks with them about your goals and ask them what helped them get through difficult times.

Researchers believe their findings could be used to develop interventions to help low-income students succeed in school. But questions of upward mobility aren't the only challenges economically disadvantaged students face in high school and college. The problem is larger than convincing individual students that getting a degree is worth it, Browman said.

Upward Mobility pbs rewire

“The belief among some low-SES youth and young adults that mobility is unrealistic in their society is likely deep-seated, resulting from a lifetime of concrete experiences that cast doubt upon the plausibility that people from their background can experience mobility in that society,” he said in a news release about the research.

“What this implies is that in order to promote meaningful sustained academic effort, researchers, educators, and policymakers should consider what sorts of systemic changes to the educational environment might provide these students with concrete routes to mobility that are viable for students from their backgrounds,” Browman explains.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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