Inequities in College Access Threaten the American Dream

Many of us have been watching our society separate by income— the wealthy moving to enclaves surrounding our cities while our poorest families are left behind, concentrated in ghettos from which they struggle to propel their children into places with better chances.  Stanford University sociologist Sean Reardon has documented these trends, here and here, with numbers that stun even if we have been paying attention.  Many of us struggle, however to understand the factors that are converging to produce our growing inequality.  Although we are all caught up in the systems that ensure that we live near people who are pretty much like ourselves, the factors that reinforce inequality are as likely to seem as invisible as the air around us.

In an important report published this summer by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl document the ways that Higher Education Reinforces the Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege.

The myth, of course, is that we live in a meritocracy where every April the smartest high school seniors who have worked the hardest receive acceptance letters and financial aid packages that will take them to the most selective colleges.  According to Carnevale and Strohl, however:  “Polarization by race and ethnicity in the nation’s postsecondary system has become the capstone for K-12 inequality and the complex economic and social mechanisms that create it.  The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market.”

According to Carnevale and Strohl, “The postsecondary system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations.  More college completion among white parents brings higher earnings that fuel the intergenerational reproduction of privilege by providing more highly educated parents the means to pass their educational advantages on to their children.  Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the suburbs …. The synergy between the growing economic value of education and the increased sorting by housing values makes parental education the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment and future earnings.  As a result , the country also has the least intergenerational educational and  income mobility among advanced nations.”

While overall the number of African American and Hispanic students entering colleges and universities has grown, their enrollment in selective institutions has not grown significantly.  This means that the percentage of whites at the most selective 468 colleges has increased while the share of seats for black and brown young people has stagnated.  Graduation rates at the most selective institutions continue to grow, while dropping out of college is much higher in less selective institutions. As college costs have risen, higher income parents confer privilege by ensuring that their children can make it all the way to graduation.

According to the report, racial segregation compounds economic injustice as a separate variable: “African Americas and Hispanics usually remain concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, even as individual family income increases.  As a result race gives additional power to the negative effects of low-income status and limits the positive effects of income gains, better schools, and other educational improvements.  Hence, minorities are disproportionately harmed by increasing income inequality and don’t benefit as much as whites from generational improvements in educational attainment or income growth.”

“It is difficult to clearly mark the point where racial discrimination ends and economic deprivation begins, but the evidence is clear that both negatively affect educational and economic opportunity and are most powerful in combination.  The interaction of race and class disadvantages results in the spatial, social, and economic isolation that signifies persistent hardship.”


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