New book asks: What do first-gen students sacrifice in seeking upward mobility?

A new book from philosopher Jennifer M. Morton considers the ethical dilemmas faced by first-generation and low-income college students torn between educational opportunity and home-life pressures. In Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility, Morton details her own experience emigrating from Lima, Peru, to attend Princeton University and highlights the aspects of students’ lives and identities that are impacted in the course of pursuing higher education. 

Morton—who was a professor at the City College of the City University of New York and will soon start a new position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—asserts that we all make ethical choices as we balance family, community, career, and education. These “goods” often conflict and require trade-offs: “Every major choice we make to maximize a good might detract from the quality or quantity of other potential goods in our lives,” writes James M. Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Shifting relationships, identities

For instance, in prioritizing education, a student may “have to learn to say no to those for whom she cares,” Morton writes. Further weakening those relationships, students may also find themselves “becoming more and more dissimilar from those with whom they grew up.”  

Morton says she “felt very alone” when making decisions in college, such as picking a major. Neither her mother nor her grandmother “could offer advice that I felt I could really trust since they had no familiarity with the decision I was facing,” she told Inside Higher Ed

Higher education faculty and staff often underestimate the importance of relationships and the toll of these changes, says Morton. She calls on colleges and universities to “find ways to make campuses places where first-generation college students can find friends, enter new communities, and develop relationships with mentors” so that students can “enrich their lives in those areas in which they have had to sacrifice to make it in college.”

Weakening vulnerable communities

Lang says that Morton’s book highlights another important dynamic: the loss felt by students’ families and communities. “The students with the talent, intellect, and ambition to improve their lot through a college education are likely to be the ones who help their families and communities,” writes Lang, adding that, in going to college, “they leave behind gaping holes.” 

This, says Lang, is an especially “complex challenge” and one that professors should keep in mind when they see students struggling to balance home responsibilities alongside educational commitments.

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