Inequality in Higher Education
Education is having a kumbaya moment as the solution to the multiple and profound forms of inequality throughout our society. But while education has a crucial role to play in providing access to opportunity, access to high-quality, affordable education is itself highly inequitable. In fact, far from fostering equity, education too often serves to perpetuate and solidify privilege, a way of “laundering the found money that comes with being born into the right bank account or the dominant race.”
We work in higher education with many people who understand the problem and are passionate about fixing it. Entrenched historical and economic barriers make progress difficult and slow. Many scholars, research institutes, think tanks, non-profits, and state governments have articulated the issues but we think it is important to review the resources and restate the problems again simply.
Resources on Racial Inequality in Higher Education
While more students of color are enrolling in higher education, Whites graduate at much higher rates, go into less debt, and are more strongly represented by higher ed faculty and staff. This report spells it out in detail everything you need to know.
Despite Blacks and Latinos making up 36 percent of the college-age population, they collectively make up only 19 percent of freshman enrollment at selective public colleges. This report describes how tax dollars are funding inequality at selective public institutions and that Blacks and Latinos are “primarily funneled into underfunded and overcrowded bottom-tier, open access colleges.”
The economy has changed dramatically in the past decades and, though the degree is no guarantee of a good job, there are very few good job options for people without a college degree.
And even when they earn degrees, Blacks and Latinos are less likely to get a high quality education in higher-earning fields like engineering and education, mathematics, statistics, and physical sciences.
Racial minorities enroll in disproportionate numbers at U.S. community colleges, which are underfunded and ignored in most conversations about higher education—and whose students receive less than their fair share of federal and state aid.
Higher education has not focused nearly enough on the long-term employability of graduates given our changing workforce needs. Soft skills, competencies, and adaptability will benefit students of color and should be the mantra across higher education.
How Change Can Happen in Higher Education
We believe that part of the solution involves rethinking the outdated model of courses, classes, grades, and fixed schedules found in higher education. We have observed and worked on innovative models that help first-generation students and students of color learn in ways that serve them well throughout their lifetimes and offer postsecondary credentials that lead to career-building job opportunities. These include:
- Competency-based learning combined with stackable microcredentials that have value in the workplace.
- Work-based learning such as apprenticeships and paid internships that pay bills and tuition while establishing a profession and structured pathways to valuable credentials.
- Professional certifications embedded in degree programs such as are found at many community colleges across the nation.
- Personalized academic and coaching support designed for students as individuals to help them be successful The sudden move to remote learning this past spring revealed the impact of gaps in access and connection.
Much of higher ed will, of necessity, be reinventing itself in the post-Covid era and this is the time for change. Such initiatives require imagination, leadership, and funding resourcefulness but the consequences of allowing another generation of students of color to languish without opportunity and hope are too great.