Is College Truly the Great Equalizer?

With the realities of adulthood slowly beginning to dawn on me and graduation drawing closer, I’ve been forced to answer time and time again the dreaded looming question: “what are your plans after college?” As basic as the question may sound, for a young black woman like myself it comes with completely different connotations to lets say- my white, female counterparts. It is no secret that as a person of color navigating the American system is not so easy, apart from obvious differences such as race other factors such as gender, class, family income and other socioeconomic factors play a huge role in the outcome of one’s future. However when it comes to the specific action of attending college and obtaining a university degree, these glaring differences are meant to simply disappear and one’s life should only be on an upward trajectory because ‘college is the great equalizer’ and ‘if you have a degree you can achieve anything.’ At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But taking a look around even just New York City for starters, tells a completely different story.

About 2.8 million students graduate from college each year with a college degree, while some of them go on to find jobs and secure a stable life, many of them are still left unemployed. According to the Economic Policy Institute as of 2016 the unemployment rate for young college graduates was about 5.6%, an increase from the 2007 rate of 5.5%. While between the two years there has been a stark 3% rise in the number of underemployed college graduates, that is college graduates employed to do low-paying jobs that is inadequate to the level of education of they have received. So despite the fact that people have gone through the mostly strenuous process of attending a two to four year college, they still graduate with no concrete prospect of getting a job. These figures have left many people including myself, questioning that age old belief ingrained in the psyche that ‘College is the equalizer.’ Surely if college was the great equalizer, all people that graduate from college should be employed and live a stable, happy life right? Well it gets much more complicated than that and for us to truly understand why, we have to take a look at the history of college attendance and the many reasons that influence people of varied backgrounds to partake in it.

“A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” former President Obama remarked during a speech at a community college in Tennessee. Just like majority of the American population, the former president shares in a belief that is paramount to achieving the true American Dream. The notion that through education, hard work and determination, all Americans have an equal opportunity for prosperity, success and upward social mobility. Ever since their existences on American soil in the early 1700’s, colleges have been deemed as sacred institutions of higher level education that hold the key for unlocking this American Dream. As colleges began to desegregate in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it became more possible for people of varied backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses to attend college, graduate and become just as successful as one another. A college degree during that period of time meant more job opportunities, connections and upward class mobility that provided security and stability for the future. College was a form of ‘level-playing field’ that if one had the grit or privilege to attend, almost always guaranteed a positive outcome.

Although historically that might have been the case, circumstances have changed dramatically over the past 40 years. Especially for people who come from lower income backgrounds and other disenfranchised communities. The whole idea of ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps to move up the social ladder’ just doesn’t apply any longer in 21st century America. The rapid rise in the country’s population coupled with advances in globalization and technology though beneficial, has caused a sharp rise in prices and other costs of living. Attending college itself has become increasingly expensive and many students- mostly those from lower income backgrounds- have to take out hefty loans in order to be able to afford it. But unlike the late 1960’s these students are not guaranteed a job straight out of college and so often find themselves and swamped with debt. As of late 2016, the total amount of US borrowers with student debt was about 44.2 million while the total student loan debt was a whopping $1.31 trillion. Situations like this, coupled with other social and economic factors play a large role in affecting the college experience of some people and the outcome of their lives outside college. “There are no accidents, only precedents…the education and economic system is predicated on inequity,” said activist Tim Wise in his 2016 address to teachers in regards to the college educational system.

A clear example of this can be seen between low income African American students, and their white, middle class counterparts. Where inequality begins even before both group of students enter college, with racial and economic privilege already favoring the white students over the black causing the playing field to be unequal. Upon entering college, studies have shown that things generally remain the same as low income students with less money and parental support experience college completely differently from their affluent peers. In the case of many low income African American students, many have to balance college life with an external job just to make ends meet. “The odds are stacked up way against us poorer brown folks,” Monica a first generation college student at LIU Brooklyn juggles between maintaining two jobs in the city, while also attending college. This has meant reduced networking opportunities and attendance of campus events which in some cases lead to establishing connections and eventually job access after college; a common occurrence one might find within low income students.

“It’s a lot of pressure, sometimes I feel like I can’t just be a regular college student like other people just because of my background, it’s unfair” she continued.

However, it isn’t always all bad news for low income students that attend college. Those who end up graduating with a bachelor’s degree, on average usually earn $1 million more over their lifetime than their counterparts who only finished high school; if they end up finding a job and pay off their college debt that is. It’s almost like taking one step forward and two steps back and with all the politics (racism, classism, sexism etc) involved with finding a well paying, satisfactory job on the labor market for many the playing field remains just as unequal as it was prior to obtaining a college degree. African Americans with a college degree are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to their white counterparts, while the few that do get jobs make about two-thirds of what their affluent white counterparts earn and by the mid point in their career see this figure shrink down even more to a mere half. Majority of the American labor market is biased in the favor of white people.

“All these different little boobie traps are set up basically for me not win, like they’re already in place even before picking up a bag or the first day of class”

Andre, an art director for the apparel brand Clothing Arts, understands firsthand what it’s like navigating the present day labor market. Growing up in a low income African American household in Brooklyn, it had always been a dream of his to attend college for his passion of photography, although his parents wanted him to pursue a more educative career path that was deemed more lucrative Andre went ahead to pursue a degree in commercial photography at LaGuardia Community College. At first he was satisfied with his decision but as reality began to kick in and the expenses of college really came to the forefront his opinion began to change and ultimately dropped out in his senior year.

“It was a mix of all the financial stuff with family stuff and a whole bunch of other things, it became too much.”

Just like Andre, many other people from low income families and poorer socioeconomic backgrounds face disparities in education and employment which remain main drivers of inequity, but another factor that is often overlooked and probably is the most important determinant of a person’s future: wealth and inheritance. In a report conducted with other researchers, Associate Professor of Economics and Urban Policy at The New School, Darrick Hamilton, PhD, found that African Americans with college degrees, still have less in savings and assets compared to their white counterparts who only graduated from high school. “When you look at families we see that education does not erase the racial wealth divide, getting an education or a job isn’t the solution to it all” stated Hamilton. Wealth is a very important factor for determining if a family is in and can remain within the American middle class while keeping families who make it there from quickly falling out of it. According to the Pew Research Center wealth inequality has widened against racial and economic lines since the Great Recession, with white households having 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013. A statistic which upon closer inspection makes sense, as white people in comparison to their black counterparts, often come from more well off backgrounds that provide strategic connections, inheritance and assets that can be used for their benefit in the future. Another reason why white college graduates find it easier to find a job and earn income straight out of college. As researcher Professor Nancy Di Tomaso argued in her 2013 book The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism, racial inequality in the job market just doesn’t boil down solely to the perpetuation of racist idea, but also because of the simple fact that most white people still fill the top decision making positions in the economy, and tend to distribute the advantages amongst their inner network of family and friends, who most likely also tend to be white. This skewed selectivity system of operation fuelling the American economy has further left people disenchanted with the whole ‘college is the great’ equalizer narrative. “If my professors had told me the job market is f*d up, your people are poor and how the real world actually works, I would’ve probably put all the money I wasted on college loans into buying a house so at least I have something worth showing…I’ll rather owe on a house than on a school loan” said Andre.

When looking at all the research, statistics, facts and general public opinion, it has become obvious that college is no longer the great equalizer it used to be. Many intersectional factors such as race, class, gender, socioeconomic background, parental influence and wealth all play a huge role today in determining if people turn out successful. Depending on a college degree for upward social mobility is not enough. However this is not to say that people shouldn’t go to college, as attending college on a larger scale can be beneficial in its own right. “If I had the chance to go to college again here in the States, I will definitely go it will definitely bring better jobs” said Adel an Egyptian graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, currently working as an attendant The Donut Shop. More options that are less consequential for low income people willing to attend college can be explored, such as two year community college, online courses, etc as long as they are aware that, unlike the late 1960’s a degree alone may not guarantee success. College may not be for everyone, but as Andre said

“those that do get the opportunity to go should really be grateful and utilize it as much as possible, treat it like an orange squeeze every bit of juice out of it because you still have to pay for it at the end.”