In roughly three months’ time, as classrooms fill and teachers work to engage and motivate their new charges, many students will hear a time-honored presentation on the importance of a college degree. College degrees, they will be told, increase your likelihood of getting a job, and they increase how much you will be paid over the course of your career.
These things are true, but too often we use these facts to conclude that our society-wide inequities would be fixed if only we could help students from all races and backgrounds graduate from college at equal rates. If only that were true.
Nationally in 2013, young black college graduates (those between 22 and 27) had an unemployment rate more than twice the overall average for young college graduates. Roughly one out of eight young black college graduates were unemployed (meaning that they were seeking employment but did not yet have a job), compared to one out of eighteen young college graduates overall.
Disparities persist even with age and experience. As of May 2014, the unemployment rate for whites 25 and over with a college degree was 2.7%. For blacks of the same age and education level, it was 4.2%.
Nor is this strictly a black-white issue. In May 2014, Asians 25 and over with a college degree had a 4.0% unemployment rate, compared to whites’ 2.7%. In 2013, Hispanic college graduates had a 5% unemployment rate.
There are many possible factors that could be overlapping to cause these disparities. The effects of social networks on finding jobs, the consistently demonstrated tendency of resumes with “black” names to receive less attention than resumes with “white” names, and the disproportionate impact of the recent recession all inform the recent data. This is certainly not a recent problem; rather, it is a long-running historical trend.
The enduring disparities in employment (and housing, income, neighborhood, etc.) that exist even after controlling for educational attainment point to the importance of a broad focus on equity. Yes, educational equity is important. We need to ensure that all students attend schools that afford them wonderful opportunities for success, self-exploration, and personal development. But we also need to keep in mind that the promise of a college degree is different for students of color than it is for white students.
Too often, it feels like we rush to push students out of high school and into college, only to abandon them once they’re in a position to take on debt. Thankfully, some people and organizations are working hard on the issue. To name just two, the University of Minnesota operates the College Readiness Consortium, and the KIPP charter school program has begun to focus more heavily on how its graduates do in college. However, even helping students of color and students from under-resourced backgrounds reach parity with white and middle class students when it comes to college graduation rates won’t be enough.
This returns us to points made by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his Atlantic feature, “The Case for Reparations,” as well as the points made by many other researchers and commentators in the article’s intellectual history. Essentially, pretty much every stage of the system in the United States contributes to racial disparities, since elements of every stage are derived from historic or current racism. Sometimes these were codified in public policy, as with racially restrictive deeds across the country in the first years of the Federal Housing Administration. At other times, they are reflected in unconscious biases, as in many instances of hiring discrimination (although there are certainly many examples of conscious biases there, too).
Our schools can play a part in undermining this rigged system, but only if we intentionally, explicitly turn them to that purpose. Otherwise, our schools, being public institutions, will tend to codify and reinforce institutional racism, often through unintentional but very real effects.
Transforming our school system to be effectively anti-racist will mean giving families and communities of color more power in democratic decision-making beyond just school board elections. It will mean teachers and their unions driving their own professional development to increase their ability to navigate cultural differences and be effective in undoing the racism of the past and present, as well as administrators who are willing to let them do so. It will mean empowering students and ensuring that their classes and curriculum are broad, rich, and full of opportunities to see themselves and their hopes and dreams honored and reflected.
And even this will not be enough. Because even after we have done all these things, the students who grew up in those anti-racist schools will still be entering a society where college graduates of color who want a job are less likely to find one than are white students. This is why we need to tackle our structural racism at every level. This is too big for the schools alone to address, even as they have an important role to play.