Broadly, education is seen by many marginalized communities as a critical resource for advancing the community’s and its individual members’ status. Higher education, in particular, is seen as the great equalizer. Certainly, disparities in higher education exist likely at every stage — even finishing high school, applying to college, admission, completion, two-year versus four-year degrees, etc. And, academia has its history of discrimination and exclusion (which, to a lesser degree, still occur). But, we hope that those individuals of disadvantaged backgrounds who do not “leak out” at earlier stages will live better lives — hopefully as good as their privileged peers.
The harsh reality is that the academy is a social institution. And, like every other social institution — medicine, religion, the military, the family, media — it has the potential to reproduce the hierarchies of the larger society. Yes, even for colleges and universities — which we see as eliminating such hierarchies — they can play a role in reinforcing and reproducing social hierarchies. And, they do.
A new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce — “Separate & Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege” — has garnered quite a bit of attention because it highlights stark racial and ethnic inequalities in colleges. Latina/o and African-American students are underrepresented at wealthier, more selective four-year colleges and universities. And, they are overrepresented at open-access two-year colleges. And, as the report’s title suggests, this is reproducing racial and ethnic inequality, rather than eliminating it:
The result, it says, is a system in which elite selective colleges enroll predominantly white students while black and Hispanic students, even high-achieving ones, largely attend open-access institutions. Because the latter group of colleges spends less on instruction and sees lower shares of students through to graduation, higher education has thus become a “passive agent” in perpetuating white privilege, says the report.
In essence, their are two pathways:
These different pathways then lead to very different lives after college:
The financial implications of those differences are huge: A worker with an advanced degree is expected to earn as much as $2.1 million more in his or her lifetime than a college dropout, the report said. Also, the report said graduates of selective colleges earn an average of $67,000 a year 10 years after graduation, about $18,000 a year more than their counterparts who graduate from non-selective schools.
So, while there is good news — that minority enrollments are up (especially for Black women) — the bad is that the advancements in these individuals’ lives exist in the context of the continued reproduction of racial and ethnic inequality. That goes for class inequality, as well.