How Can College be the Great Equalizer if the System is Rigged?


On Monday ProPublica uncovered a new college admissions scandal involving forty suburban Chicago families who renounced legal guardianship of their college-bound teens so that they can declare themselves financially independent and get scholarships, grants, and aid meant for low-income students.

Most of the teens are high achieving scholars, athletes, and musicians and their parents are doctors, lawyers, superintendents as well as insurance and real estate agents. Not exactly the picture of people in need. But they’re definitely people who are also feeling the sharp increase in the cost of college tuition and the cost of living. This highlights the fact that even well-to-do families cannot afford or maybe don’t want to bear the financial burden of a college degree.

This comes months after the ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal in which wealthy parents (including two Hollywood actresses) falsified documents and paid $25 million to bribe their children’s way into elite colleges. While the details of each student’s financial situation are not clear in the Chicago case, what is clear is that the haves continue to gain at the expense of the have nots. More importantly, poor and POC students are being robbed of their chance at one of the foundational building blocks of economic empowerment. 

What Does Getting Educated Mean for POC?

In high school, we were all told that college is a sure-fire way to get a secure, “good job.” It seems easy enough, four years in exchange for a lifetime of benefits. But for POC and Latinx the promise of financial security holds more weight and comes at a higher cost. For marginalized people college means dignified work, helping their families, and a chance to move out of poverty. It also means taking on life-long debt, jumping through hoops for grants and scholarships, learning to navigate toxic white spaces, and dealing with institutional racism and curriculum. 

For children of immigrants especially, it is a way to solidly demonstrate to our parents that their sacrifices were not in vain.

But even with the rising costs of tuition, parking, books, and housing — college is still widely accepted as the best way, if not the only way, poor/POC students can access the riches promised to those who are “educated.”

Respectability Politics

Affirmative Action, College, University, ProPublica, Chicago, Respectability politics, Latinx

“Kill the Indian, save the man.”

The belief that anyone can come to the US and advance based solely on intelligence and ability is a clever lie. Countless think pieces have been published on the false narrative of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The myth of meritocracy is used to justify extreme wealth (made possible by slavery, genocide, and exploitation) and the social and economic advantages of white Americans.

When minority groups are told by the group in power that in order to be treated better, they must behave better, respectability politics begin to rear its ugly head. We’re told that everyone who assimilates will suddenly have the same rights, privileges, and interest rates as white Americans. Of course, Latinx have been sold on the idea that a college education is not only a good financial decision but also a morally and socially sound one as well. 

For many POC, being educated translates into “acting white” (i.e. speaking “correctly,” “acting respectably,” etc.). way. 

Even with all the barriers in place that keep college out of reach for POC, the term “uneducated” remains synonymous with the culture, beliefs, dress, and behavior of a lower class. This is especially present in Latin America where higher education is reserved for the rich, white ruling class. Calling someone “uneducated” is coded racism. It’s the same as calling them “ghetto,” “dumb,” “ignorant” or displaying the “low-class qualities” associated with Indigenous, Black, and Brown communities. And it’s not any different here in the United States.

Does a College Degree Mean Economic Equality?

Affirmative Action, College, University, ProPublica, Chicago, Respectability politics, Latinx

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

According to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research working paper “the career earnings premium from a four-year college degree for persons from low-income backgrounds is considerably less than it is for those from higher-income backgrounds.” Meaning, yes college can shape career trajectories for poor students but the gains do not even begin to compare to those of wealthy students.

There is also the issue of student loan debt and repayment that hinders the very economic growth a college education is said to create in the first place. As well as the fact that white males from higher-income backgrounds get the same benefits of a college degree with just a high school diploma.

The study also cites POC’s ‘soft skills’ such as etiquette and small talk as barriers that make them less likely to obtain better jobs. So even when you have an education, you’re still a product of your environment and upbringing. And because POC existence and appearance are considered “uneducated” we are still shut out of many of the opportunities college is supposed to provide.

At the end of the day our respectability is just as important as our degrees. And one cannot fully function without the presence of the other. Education alone will not unlock the benefits of whiteness unless you’re already wealthy and white. Funny how that works.

What About Affirmative Action?

Affirmative Action, College, University, ProPublica, Chicago, Respectability politics, Latinx

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There have been attempts to try to level the playing field. Executive Order 11246 was issued by President Johnson in 1965 requiring federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that equal opportunity is provided in all aspects of their employment.” It was meant to apply broadly to the workplace and schools with the purpose of addressing past discrimination against women and POC by setting aside resources to address inequality. 

Since its creation, affirmative action has been demonized for supposedly giving POC the spots and resources intended for more deserving white and Asian students. This, of course, ignores the fact that wealthy students have all sorts of systems in place that favor them (i.e. legacy admissions, “donations,” and development admissions, and outright bribery) and the fact that white women are actually the largest beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. 

In 1996 California became the first state to effectively ban affirmative action. And 7 more states followed suit with similar bans in their constitutions or statute books. And despite popular belief, today affirmative action is not an across-the-board practice. 

Most recently Asian-Americans have rallied against affirmative action claiming it discriminates against them by preventing their admission to Harvard, even though they are 5.8 percent of the U.S. population but comprised 22.2 percent of Harvard’s admitted class last year. And even though legacy applicants were accepted at a rate of nearly 34 percent from 2009 to 2015.

In response, Trump moved to drop Obama era guidelines on race-based admissions policies. And although many Universities vowed to leave them in place, academia doesn’t exactly have a great track record with students and faculty of color.

Is College Really Worth It?

Photo Chad J. McNeeley

Well, the answer is both yes and no. A college education is a valuable thing to have simply because it is the most basic requirement for career opportunities. Mainly because you need a four-year degree and twenty years of experience to be a babysitter these days. On the other hand, there are a thousand other smaller details that need to be in place for poor and POC students to gain access to the benefits wealthy and white students get by virtue of birth.  

In every meaningful way, lower-income students are cut off at the knees. And it’s pretty clear that it’s not about education, respectability, assimilation or being deserving enough — it’s about a privileged class that continues pushing the finish line further and further away to prevent us from winning.

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