White Flight to the Bachelor’s Degree

Anthony P. Carnevale
Sep 2, 2020 · 10 min read

By Anthony P. Carnevale

Protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the shooting and paralysis of Jacob Blake, and the disproportionate medical and economic impacts of COVID-19 on Black Americans have sparked widespread activism and renewed critical conversations about inequality of opportunity in this country. Black Americans have been hit hard by COVID and the new COVID economy. At the same time, Black workers who are still employed tend to be in jobs where they are most susceptible to contracting the virus.

Black Americans are more vulnerable in part because of their lower levels of education and the jobs available to them as a result. Yet the movement toward increased racial tracking in higher education seems to be gathering new momentum, with a growing emphasis on short-term training and sub-baccalaureate awards. There’s nothing wrong with training and sub-baccalaureate programs that lead to jobs that pay well, but we need to be sure that we don’t exacerbate the already-growing racial divide in access to the baccalaureate. We must guard against the mindset that short-term training and sub-baccalaureate awards are good enough for the least advantaged among us.

In today’s economy, the four-year college degree is still the gold standard and surest gateway to economic and social progress. The four-year degree provides access to the pinnacle of the higher education system — the graduate level — and starkly divides the American people by race. And we are on track to become much more divided, not less.

Our research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has shown — over and over again — just how complicit education is in replicating White privilege. In recent decades, White students’ greater access to the country’s selective colleges has led to White workers’ dominance of good jobs. This divide exists because White Americans have fled the high school economy and obtained bachelor’s degrees at a phenomenal rate. The number of White workers grew by 2 million between 1991 and 2016. Over the same period, the number of White workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher grew by about 13 million, and the share of White workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose from 29 percent to 44 percent.

Disproportionate attainment at the bachelor’s and graduate degree levels has propelled White workers toward economic opportunity, while the growing college earnings premium and persistent wage discrimination have stifled opportunity for Black workers. In 2016, the share of Black workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 30 percent — roughly equivalent to the share of White workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1991. Four million Black workers joined the labor force between 1991 and 2016, and the number of Black workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose by 2.7 million. This reflects significant educational advancement, but not enough to chip away at the gap between White and Black workers. Without intervention, the future merely promises that opportunities for Black Americans will continue to trail far behind those available to White Americans.

To be sure, disparities in opportunity don’t only exist between Black and White students and workers. Latino workers are about where White workers were in the mid-1980s in terms of bachelor’s degree attainment. And educational equity gaps also exist by socioeconomic status (SES). Only 15 percent of White youth from lower-income families (bottom quartile of SES) attain a bachelor’s degree or higher by age 25, compared with 63 percent of White youth from upper-income families (top quartile of SES). That said, anti-Black racism in the United States has a distinctively abhorrent history.

How did the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree and find a good job become so divided between Black and White Americans? The post-World War II GI Bill helped White Americans disproportionately build on their educational and economic privileges. White parents fled northern industrial cities for the leafy green suburbs, where they sent their children to well-funded public and private schools and built family wealth through homeownership in neighborhoods that restricted property ownership by race.

Then, in the early 1980s, there was a watershed period for higher education in the American economy, as a growing number of good jobs began requiring education beyond high school. White Americans were poised to make the shift from high school to college, moving from suburban public schools to ivy-covered college campuses just as good jobs requiring workers with a college education were growing. White flight to the bachelor’s degree is merely the next phase in a long history of White flight to spaces that amplify White privilege.

These economic inequities are rooted in the long history of racial injustice in the United States. Stretching back to the earliest years of European settlement on North American soil, many advancements by White people have come at the cost of the forced displacement, stolen lives, and stolen labor of other racial and ethnic groups, especially Black and Native American people.

For Black Americans, slavery was the key mechanism of racial oppression for hundreds of years, persisting in the South until the end of the Civil War. Then came President Johnson’s reversal of General Sherman’s Special Field Order №15, which had guaranteed every formerly enslaved family 40 acres of slaveholders’ land.

The injustices of slavery were then compounded by 90 years of Jim Crow laws, which banned Black people in most southern states from using the same public spaces and facilities as White people. This prevented Black students from attending the same colleges, kept Black workers from accessing the same jobs, and prohibited intermarriage and cohabitation between groups, among other restrictions.

In the New Deal, when we first enacted federal social security, unemployment insurance, veteran’s benefits, housing assistance, and a host of other policies that built the American middle class, Black Americans were excluded from these benefits. That’s because, alongside the New Deal, there was a separate, corrupt deal between northern and southern Democrats to get the necessary votes for the big new programs. This deal gave administrative authority to the states, and specifically excluded eligibility for laborers and household workers, the occupations where Black workers were most heavily represented at the time.

While all this went on, Black Americans were not standing still. As southern agriculture became mechanized in the 20th century, Black workers sought job opportunities and relief from the Jim Crow South through the Great Migration, moving in large numbers to new manufacturing hubs in northern and western cities. But once there, they again found their efforts to build wealth systematically undercut by racism and discriminatory government policies.

As White families fled toward economic opportunity, Black families’ efforts to build wealth were undercut by predatory lending practices, racist federal policies that denied mortgage insurance to buyers in primarily Black neighborhoods, and racial restrictions on federal home loan guarantees. These restrictive laws and redlining policies catalyzed decline in urban Black neighborhoods while preventing residents of these neighborhoods from relocating. Meanwhile, many White families bought houses in the suburbs. To a large degree, commercial development and jobs, along with their related tax base, also shifted to the suburbs, widening geographic and racial inequality.

Then the abundant new manufacturing jobs that had drawn Black workers to cities began to vanish. As employment in manufacturing declined, Black workers disproportionately suffered job losses. Worse, the new racist housing policies left them unable to relocate to areas with better opportunities, and racist employment policies prevented them from attaining the best jobs in any geographic area.

As the manufacturing industry declined, attending college became more important for economic mobility — and more expensive. Since Black families had been prevented from building wealth through home equity, which could be used to pay for college, they were at a distinct disadvantage in the college economy. Moreover, Black people had limited access to postsecondary education, as colleges only started to be racially integrated in the 1960s.

Today’s higher education system is still racially separate and unequal. White students are disproportionately enrolled at selective colleges where there are more resources to help ensure they graduate. Fueled by a K–12 system that also disproportionately provides superior resources, including access to college-level prep courses, disparate outcomes on college campuses seem almost inevitable. While college enrollment has also increased among the Black population, Black students are overrepresented at underfunded open-access two- and four-year colleges where they have much lower chances of graduating. This guarantees that too many Black Americans get much of the debt and none of the benefits of college.

These inequalities don’t stop at the college gate. Colleges and universities stratified by race reinforce and project inequalities into the labor market, fueling a cycle of White racial privilege. In 2016, inequities in educational attainment and earnings added up to staggering wage gaps. Among workers with good jobs, White workers as a group are paid $554 billion more annually than they would be if good jobs and earnings from those jobs were equitably distributed. In contrast, Black workers are paid $202 billion less than if that were the case. The coronavirus pandemic has again exposed the racial divide in the economy, as a greater share of Black adults have experienced a loss of employment income in their households than White adults.

The White surge in four years or more of college education has set up White Americans for decades of continued economic dominance over Black Americans. White families send their children to well-funded public schools so they can gain admission to selective colleges, have access to well-paying jobs, and generally marry other White people with similar backgrounds. Then they buy homes in neighborhoods where their children can attend good public schools, and the cycle repeats.

Anti-Black racism in American history is a shape-shifting scavenger. It is an intellectual pretender that clings to whatever ideas and institutions seem to justify it at the time, and finds new justifications and institutions to sustain itself when the old ones disappear or get snatched away. Today, it has found a seemingly unassailable home in the top tiers of our educational hierarchy and the economic and personal power it conveys.

Of course, we college educators can claim (and usually do in academic discussions on the issue), that racial inequality started long before the college admissions officers get involved. But that’s a dodge. As educators, we are all connected as interlocking historical gearwheels in the institutional machinery of racial injustice.

I believe our nation’s education system serves us poorly at a time when we need an effective system more than ever.

We need reforms. Lots of them.

  • We need to treat our education institutions, social programs, and economy as all one system by connecting the dots between separate institutional and policy silos. This will allow us to establish accountability for racial equity throughout people’s lives, and to stop the finger-pointing that often occurs from one silo to the next. We need transparency and shared standards on educational and economic outcomes in all parts of this system, including at the postsecondary institution and program level.
  • We need to recognize that the pathway to college graduation begins in preschool, and commit to equalizing educational outcomes by race from children’s very earliest engagement with school. To achieve this, we don’t need equal educational funding — we need unequal funding based on relative educational needs throughout our education system. The populations with the greatest demonstrated need should get the most financial and programmatic support.
  • We need to allow community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees, and we need to strengthen our transfer systems and demand that all public four-year colleges allocate at least 20 percent of their overall enrollment to students who transfer from two-year colleges. Right now, 30 percent of Black students begin their postsecondary experiences at a community college, and only 13 percent of these students earn a bachelor’s degree within five years.
  • We need a much more robust counseling and student support system that links high schools, colleges, and labor markets to individual student interests, values, and personalities — and that rigorously avoids tracking students toward particular educational or economic goals based on their race or ethnicity.
  • We need to address and dismantle racism across all facets of American life. Achieving educational equity is crucial but inadequate to achieving equity in society.

Much will depend on the spirit as well as the content of these reforms. We need to be mindful that meaningful reform will only come when we get beyond the overblown merit myth that justifies the pious elitism at the core of our education system.

That myth is based in the idea that the best students study hard, do the homework, and ace the tests that get them into the best colleges and the best-paying and most powerful careers. And on its face, that seems fair. But in fact, if you look closer, it’s also an economic and racial dodge.

Higher education pretends to connect individual merit with individual opportunity. But in fact, it serves to preserve or compound the advantages or disadvantages that people had as children. The idea of educational merit provides cover for deep-seated racism and class-based elitism. It is the armor for a permanent new elite class of the well-educated, well-paid, and powerful. It causes as much as it cures in what ails us, including widening racial gaps and social divisions.

In short, our educational meritocracy creates an entitled intergenerational plutocracy that ensures the intergenerational reproduction of race and class privilege.

Without the right interventions, COVID-19 and the economic and demographic changes that will follow will only deepen our educational and social divisions. But new realities can be an occasion for new choices.

We can double down on the merit myth, or we can make our K–12 system and our colleges true instruments of upward mobility. We can begin to create change with the fact that spending on education is a sure thing. In the 21st century, education truly makes us healthy, wealthy, and wise. It is essential to republics. It is the enemy of authoritarianism. Either we will become a republic with equal educational opportunity at its core, or eventually we won’t be much of a republic at all.

Dr. Carnevale is co-author of “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America” and the director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook, and read more from CEW on economic and racial equity here.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a…

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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