Education is not (yet) ‘the great equalizer’

Niki Dance/File

Sorry, Horace Mann. You are wrong. Education cannot be “the great equalizer” –– or at least under the current conditions of the United States, it can’t be.

We constantly hear from policymakers and politicians that education, particularly college education, can bridge racial and social inequalities, lead young people to enriching lives and help individuals lift themselves out of poverty. Therefore, we need to prioritize enacting more policies that actually send low-income students to college.

Even when they attain a college degree, however, people from marginalized communities are still placed at far greater disadvantages. This is true even without acknowledging the rampant educational inequalities at the primary and secondary school level that many leaders in Washington frequently blame for the inequities that students face later in life. Even when low-income students or students of color are able to attend college, implicit biases, class discrimination and racism make their academic achievements obsolete.

Regardless of the hard work and sacrifices made toward earning a college education, it will remain nearly impossible for the millions of low-income college students to escape the poor circumstances they grew up in.

Recent research from the City University of New York reveal that students’ incomes following their graduation is strongly linked to their families’ income. Regardless of the hard work and sacrifices made toward earning a college education, it will remain nearly impossible for the millions of low-income college students to escape the poor circumstances they grew up in.

Class is inescapable but is more often than not determined by race. In 99% of neighborhoods in the United States, Black men consistently receive a lower income than white men who come from households with comparable incomes and education status. Even if a Black man is born into a well-educated, high income-earning family, he remains far more likely to fall into poverty than a white man with the same upbringing.

Social inequities in spite of education status extend to Black women as well. Black women who have an advanced degree are at an extremely greater risk than white women with only a high school education to lose their infant. Even if Black parents hold high academic degrees, they are more than twice as likely to lose their baby than white parents with the same academic achievement.

Evidently, earning a higher education cannot even guarantee you a merit-based income. Or secure the future of your child. Or grant you the modern right of preventing your baby from dying. Only the color of your skin can allow you these privileges.

On the other hand, major research conducted by UC Berkeley and Stanford University revealed that a college education can, in fact, generate upward mobility, with low-income students consistently advancing to the highest-income class in the United States. The upward mobility college students experienced was “conditional on the college they attend,” however, with poor students from Ivy League schools gaining the greatest mobility. In other words, low-income students can certainly lift themselves out of the poor circumstances they grew up in. But that is, only if they’re part of the less than one percent of all college students attending Harvard or Yale.

Clearly, attending college will not combat inequalities — but does this mean we shouldn’t send our children to college? Absolutely not. College is where we are free to question the status quo, discover our passions, gain greater access to lucrative careers, find our lifelong communities. By all means, students should seize the opportunity to attend college. I myself am a college student who believes attending a university is an incomparable experience, one that can ultimately help eradicate inequality but cannot be the sole solution.

But I am also not Black nor do I come from a low-income background. The predetermined factors of my upbringing and race did not affect how hard I have worked to complete my undergraduate career. Yet these factors will place me at a greater advantage than poor or Black college graduates who have worked equally as hard as I did.

We cannot push policies focused on higher education as the only means of eradicating income inequality and social inequities.

So in order to address this inequity, we need to acknowledge that inequality and discrimination still persist despite the achievement of a college degree. We cannot push policies focused on higher education as the only means of eradicating income inequality and social inequities. Perpetuating the myth that low-income students can lift themselves out of poverty through a college education is deceiving, if not dangerous. By placing the sole burden on marginalized college students to fix their circumstances is to say that they are alone in eliminating racism and social injustices, and it is their own fault if they are unable to do so.

For this reason, we need to support the political leaders who are acknowledging that all inequities are interlaced and because of this, we must prioritize all policies that address them through a variety of ways, not simply through education. That way, education truly can be the equalizer that lifts people up to the same social standing. That way, all college graduates will achieve a successful future purely based on merit. That way, we can make Horace Mann’s words a reality.

Contact Katrina Fadrilan at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @katfadrilanDC.