What if higher education isn’t the “great equalizer” after all?
According to a new analysis of Federal Reserve data, higher education may not only reflect but also exacerbate racial inequities. Black college graduates in their thirties still have a significantly lower median net worth than their white counterparts who did not attend college.
What’s worse — thanks to a combination of rising student debt, slower income growth and a pernicious wealth gap along racial lines — Black millennial graduates have actually lost ground over the last three decades relative to their white peers.
The analysis adds to our growing understanding of just how unequal career outcomes are for Black college graduates. Black grads earn less than their white peers at every level of education attainment. Outcomes are even worse for Black women, who face not only racial bias but gender discrimination. Despite significant gains in postsecondary attainment, Black women are far less represented in the workplace, paid less and less likely to be promoted throughout their careers.
These disparities stem, in part, from the fact that not all colleges, programs and majors are created equal when it comes to driving economic mobility. White students are overrepresented in the handful of selective institutions that have a positive influence on careers and economic trajectories; they are the only institutions that provide access to not just the top 20 percent of income, but to the top 1 percent.
Black students are, in turn, overrepresented in open access four-year universities and community colleges, which — while playing a hugely important role in expanding access to higher education — have fewer resources, lower graduation rates on average and less of an impact on economic mobility.
Thus, increasing access to our nation’s most selective institutions is one important factor in increasing Black students’ economic mobility. An even greater opportunity is to optimize the earning potential of Black graduates from our nation’s public higher education institutions, where more than two-thirds of all Black students are enrolled.
Recent research, however, reveals that Black students are underrepresented in the majors that lead to higher wages. But Black students are overrepresented in majors like social work and community organization, a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found.
The wage gap is significant. African Americans who complete a bachelor’s degree in a STEM-related major can earn as much as 50 percent more than those who complete a degree in psychology or social work, according to the study.
Optimizing the earnings potential of Black students in our nation’s higher education institutions requires acknowledging the role that structural racism plays in the concentration of Black students in majors with less economic value. Researchers and analysts have argued that this is a result of “tracking.”
But while this form of implicit bias certainly plays a role in how decisions are made about who is and who is not the right fit for certain majors, there is suggestive evidence that more than tracking is at play.
In her book, “Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite,” author and sociologist Maya Beasley argues that Black students’ selection of college majors is influenced by a confluence of variables related to their experiences in our nation’s racial hierarchy.
Their choices are less about maximizing earnings and more about helping other Black people. Many students’ choices reflect their concerns with racial and gender discrimination in the labor market. They may also be optimizing for fewer barriers to entry.
Black learners should not be made to believe that they must forego economic opportunity to serve their communities.
Many Black students simply select majors associated with jobs with which they are familiar. This is not surprising given that, on average, Black students have less awareness than white students of the broad and diverse world of work and the jobs and careers that exist or that can be created.
Additionally, increasing the number and proportion of Black learners who enroll and are successful in majors associated with greater economic value will require higher education institutions to develop advising and counseling strategies that build social capital and expose students to a full range of postsecondary programs of study.
Moreover, higher education institutions must deeply question why they direct Black students toward certain programs and not others — and how those decisions are reinforcing the structural racism embedded so deeply in student outcomes.
Finally, higher education institutions must confront the reality that the either-or proposition of “racial uplift or economic advancement” is a false choice that is a function of structural racism. Black learners should not be made to believe that they must forego economic opportunity to serve their communities. Securing a high-wage job, serving on the board of a nonprofit or community-based organization or starting a business are also ways that Black people can and do serve their communities.
Addressing where Black learners go to college and what they study are just two pieces of a complicated puzzle. Colleges must do more to build employer connections and relationships to ensure that their Black graduates gain equal footing in a labor market still rife with implicit bias and discrimination.
By failing to disrupt race-based outcomes, colleges are inadvertently contributing to the concentration of Black people in lower-wage work — and impeding Black Americans’ prospects for social and economic mobility.
If higher education is to live up to its reputation as the great equalizer, institutions must reimagine the ways in which they guide and encourage Black students to select and complete college majors.
Michael Collins is vice-president of Jobs for the Future and leader of its racial economic equity initiative.
This story about Black college grads was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.