Is Higher Education Propping Up White Privilege?
By Mary Ellen Flannery
White racial privilege still exists in America—did you doubt it? The latest proof is an extensive study from Georgetown University that shows two college pathways in America: one for white students at the nation’s most selective colleges, the other for black and Hispanic students—even with the same 3.5 or better GPA—at two- or four-year, open-access colleges.
Higher education is no longer the great equalizer in America: that is the sad and distressing conclusion of “Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege,” a report released in July by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce whose researchers considered enrollment trends at 4,400 institutions over 15 years.
Maybe it’s not a secret that minority students are more likely to attend more affordable public institutions. But what surprised the authors of “Separate and Unequal” is that despite all the current talk about college accessibility and affordability, and the skyrocketing number of college-bound students in America, the racial gap grows larger every year—even for minority and white students with the same academic and economic backgrounds. Rather than working to reverse inequities generated in K-12 education or public housing and heath care systems, America’s postsecondary institutions act as the “capstone” of society’s racial inequities.
Total numbers of minority students in college have grown—and that’s a good thing. But when you consider the new students attending the most selective colleges, a group of colleges that has grown over the past two decades, they’re almost all white. Specifically, since 1995, 82 percent of new white enrollments have gone to the 468 most selective colleges, while 72 percent of new Hispanic enrollment and 68 percent of new African-American enrollment have gone to the two-year and four-year open-access schools.
Why does this matter? Because resources matter, the report’s authors say. And state colleges—and their students—aren’t getting them.
Because state lawmakers have been ruthlessly cutting funds to public colleges and universities for years—state funding decreased 27 percent, on average, over the past five years—those colleges have been forced to cut courses and programs. The Minnesota State University at Mankato, for example, slashed 28 academic programs in 2010. Did you want to earn a degree in geology? (A fantastic idea if you want a job in a mineral-rich state.) Or maybe you were hoping to help get kids healthy as a physical education teacher? Well, you can’t do it in Mankato.
At the same time, in places where budget cuts meet weak faculty contracts around workload, class sizes also have grown. And, perhaps most commonly, budget-strapped colleges typically rely more extensively on low-cost, part-time or adjunct faculty. And while those contingent faculty members may be well qualified, the conditions of their employment present serious challenges to student achievement. They’re often hired just days before classes start. At that point, how do they plan a great syllabus? How do they get familiar with all the required readings? They often don’t have office space for after-class one-on-one tutoring or student advising—and they’re usually running to another job anyway, thanks to their below-living wages.
You can still get a great education at a public college and university—very often thanks to NEA Higher Ed members who strongly advocate for state funding, appropriate class sizes, and better working conditions for contingent faculty. But the fact is, as the report’s authors point out, the selective colleges spend anywhere from two to almost five times as much on instruction per student as the open-access colleges. It’s hard to compete with that money.
And the evidence is that students at more selective colleges are more likely to graduate, and hence more likely to get good-paying jobs, which increasingly are available only to college graduates in America. Bottom line: That means more black and Hispanic young adults will be shut out of jobs.
As this report arrives in inboxes just a few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed its commitment, at least in part, to affirmative action in higher education, the report’s authors acknowledge that their findings do serve as justification for race-based admissions in colleges. But they also caution that affirmative action, while necessary, cannot be the sole remedy.
“By themselves, admissions policies will not change the percentages drastically. Leveling the playing field is a challenge for education, economic, and social policymakers,” they wrote. “But admissions policies can promote social mobility and student diversity at the margins of social change by emphasizing outreach to students who have beaten the odds by overcoming their socioeconomic origins and achieving their educational goals in unfavorable environments.