Education, Access and Equity in the Age of Defunding the Police
Why dismantling systemic racism requires way more than equal access to education.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are a few of the most recent and most visible deaths of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of the police. The public reckoning of the widespread use of fatal force against members of the Black and African American community for generations has sparked a renewed call for justice and for systemic change in the United States.
It’s about time.
I am not the first and I won’t be the last to condemn the actions of officers of the law who use their position of power to perpetuate a cycle of race-based oppression in this country. What happened is not okay. What has been happening to the Black community has never been okay. We are finally collectively talking about it.
But, in my capacity leading a company that aims to democratize the path to college, equality as it relates to access — specifically, access to education — has been especially top of mind.
Along with wealth creation, education is one of the most often cited drivers of socioeconomic mobility and life circumstance transformation. When people talk about policy reforms to expand equal access, education is inevitably brought up as one of the areas to re-examine.
As it should be.
Education is crucial in a person’s life, not only because it exposes one to new ideas, but also to new people and new values. It can fundamentally change a person’s worldview and alter a person’s set of available opportunities. Therefore, it’s critical that, under an administration where many policies that protect civil liberties in our country have been rolled back, the fundamental right to education access be safeguarded.
“Along with wealth creation, education is one of the most often cited drivers of socioeconomic mobility and life circumstance transformation.”
Yet, education access is not enough. Not without also acknowledging the way education in the United States was designed to uphold structural racism along with an interwoven set of social and political constructs that are still in play today.
We can’t talk about access to education without also discussing how multiple systems put in place at the founding of our nation together denied the rights of a significant portion of the population from the outset, which has had long-lasting ramifications on equality and access today.
We can’t talk about access to education without also talking about access to affordable health care, to fair and stable housing, to capital creation, to civic engagement, to political and legal representation, just to name a few. None of these sectors operates independently of historical and persisting systemic racism.
It’s no secret that institutions of higher education in the United States excluded non-white students at their inception. The much sought after Ivy League colleges were initially designed to block certain candidates (i.e., racial and religious minorities) from gaining admission. The SAT college entrance exam has been redesigned multiple times to address and remedy its historical racial bias.
Our higher education institutions have come a long way to rectify these historical wrongs by embracing the need for diversity among their student bodies and to be more inclusive in their messaging and programming. Over the past couple of years, numerous colleges have moved toward test-optional admissions to increase access and reviewed their affirmative action practices.
However, as the Varsity Blues scandal last year demonstrated, those with money and influence know how to leverage their power and networks to call in favors and to game a system that already caters to their privilege. The consideration of legacy status, of big donor admissions, of reserved seats in the college admissions evaluation process all still feed the systems that grant preferential treatment or increased access to groups that are already advantaged.
And because knowledge is also power, privileged access to application information and admissions channels can also represent power. There is a marked difference between the influence of an elite private school college counselor and that of a counselor working at an under-resourced public school in a low-income community.
My career in education thus far has been guided by a mission to level the playing field for all students and to increase access to higher education with data and information access.
Yet, increasing access to higher education is just one small piece of the solution needed for true systems-wide dismantling of institutional racism within our social frameworks. On its own, it’s ineffective.
It’s not enough to increase access to college when we don’t also solve for success once admitted. Diversity at the admissions stage is laudable, but how do we ensure academic, social, health-related and financial success once these diverse admits make it onto campus?
According to a 2019 report, Black students had the lowest college completion rates — 46% at public universities and 57% at private universities — of any racial group. The non-academic reasons students drop out can vary, from an inability to pay for non-tuition college costs to a lower reported sense of belonging. These attrition stressors disproportionately affect first generation and minority students. A UNCF report found that 65% of African American college students are independent, meaning they balance pursuing a degree with full-time work and familial responsibilities.
We don’t have to dig deep to know that these reasons for dropping out stem from a historically, racially motivated system that denies financial and social safety nets for the communities these students come from. Students who don’t stay, don’t graduate. Students who don’t graduate are currently faced with a vastly different set of opportunities than those who do.
And before students even get to the application stage, how are we ensuring that all aspiring college attendants are set up for success when the time comes to apply? How do we make sure that students are properly fed, receiving adequate health care, have access to a safe place to sleep each night, have legislative representatives who speak on their behalf? Practices such as redlining and tying public school funding to property taxes also inextricably and directly link access to capital to education access.
In order to maximize engagement in the classroom, we need to create social structures outside of the classroom that support learning and engagement for each and every student, especially for our at-risk/at-promise youth.
“We don’t have to dig deep to know that these reasons for dropping out stem from a historically, racially motivated system that denies financial and social safety nets for the communities these students come from.”
Higher education may be the most visible gatekeeper, but access through these gates is woefully insufficient. Those of us working to increase access must do so in conjunction with communities and organizations that are working on intersectional reform to also address equal access and effective funding across multiple sectors. The call to defund police and divert spending to social justice initiatives and community-oriented solutions is a worthy one that can strengthen the systems that support achieving equity in education.
Education reform cannot be a standalone solution to equitable access. Until we start examining our education system through political, economic, socio-cultural, and environmental lenses, we will simply be addressing a downstream problem without redressing interwoven root causes.
An abridged version of this article was published on the AdmitSee.com blog, which also shares suggested calls to action, including monetary and non-monetary ways to donate to the cause, as well as resources, such as blacklivesmatters, Justice in June, The 1619 Project, a “Systemic Racism” explainer video, and FiveThirtyEight’s House and Senate voting records.