The Time to Act is Now: Let’s Tackle the Race Gap in Higher Education

Jessie Gotsdiner
Policy Associate, Women Employed

Americans are growing more comfortable talking about race — and that’s important. By 2044, people of color will outnumber white people in the U.S., and by 2060, the majority of women will no longer be white. We need to keep the conversation going.

But talking about race isn’t enough. What’s missing from our discussions is a sense of urgency. As a woman of color and an immigrant, I grow increasingly weary of repeated discussions on white privilege and institutional racism. “Applying a racial equity lens” may be a new concept to some, but for many of us, it’s been our only lens since birth. We need to keep talking about race and turn thought into immediate action.

In the higher education space specifically, we must capitalize on this momentum to accelerate our efforts toward achieving racial equity. By 2025, 60 percent of Americans will need some type of high-quality credential beyond high school. It’s time to fully tackle the reality we’ve known for years: White students outperform students of color in postsecondary education. In Illinois, 20 percent of Latinx adults and 31 percent of Black adults hold at least an associate degree, compared to 50 percent of White adults.

To be clear, we’ve already taken many crucial steps: Illinois has set an ambitious statewide goal of 60 percent of adults holding a high-quality credential or degree by 2025. Women Employed is participating in updating that goal to include equity-focused targets aimed at closing racial achievement gaps. Plenty of institutions — Wilbur Wright College, Oakton College, Loyola University, to name a few — have demonstrated bold leadership with their administrations taking a hard look at data, disaggregating student outcomes and faculty representation by race, and implementing specific efforts to close achievement gaps. Yet, while such efforts have culminated in over a seven-point increase for Black and Latinx associate-or-above degree attainment since 2000, we are still not doing enough.

Now we need to solve racial inequities in a more systemic, holistic fashion, with a race-forward approach from the outset. We need to stop relying on income alone to shape higher education policies and explicitly include race as a factor. We must account for the reality that the median wealth of White families is nearly ten times that of Black families. As families of color struggle to recover from the Great Recession, we must equitably distribute limited financial aid dollars and account for debt. We must set policies that stop trapping our students of color in unnecessary remedial education courses. We must fully utilize federal resources to address students of color struggling with child care and hunger, such as CCAMPIS and SNAP. We must facilitate the match of students to institutions and career pathway programs that best serve their needs.

There’s a lot that we can do today. My plea to fellow advocates, policymakers, elected officials, and the public is this: Keep talking about race, and keep building on our accomplishments — but do not be afraid to move beyond talk and take concrete actions to address racial inequities in higher education. We cannot reach our desired state without doing so. Time marches on, and together, we must march faster toward our goal.

Jessie Gotsdiner (at left) is a policy associate at Women Employed, working on our Education and Training team. Jessie grew up in Omaha, and she earned her BS in Learning and Organizational Change from Northwestern University, and her MPA in Public Policy Analysis from New York University.