Skipping College Is a Luxury Most Black and Brown Kids Can’t Afford

Though stories of entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates show teens that they can succeed without college, they only prove to be real for the privileged.

Black college students studying together

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There’s this modern narrative that higher education is a waste of time (and money) and that usually boils down to a few key reasons. Firstly, you don’t need a degree to be successful, as demonstrated by the likes of your favorite tech entrepreneurs—Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Secondly, instead of wasting all that time and money nestled between academic journals, maybe you should be discovering yourself through exploration and real-world living. Thirdly, aren’t practical, skill-focused programs replacing the need for degrees?

While these all ring true to an extent, they don’t resonate with everyone, especially those who feel as though they have no other choice but to attend college. For some young people, college is viewed as an opportunity for stability and security. The options to "explore yourself" and "discover your passion" are not realistic in their world because there’s so much stacked against them.

It’s evident that less-educated U.S. workers often face prolonged financial challenges, however, a recent UC Berkeley study revealed that young Asian and white men without college education are paid far more than less-educated Black men and women.

A 2014 study revealed that there are racial disparities in education and unemployment. Black males with a high school diploma are around 15% less likely than white male high school dropouts to have a job. For black women without a high school diploma, they are 12% less likely to have a job than similarly educated white women. This gap closes with higher education attainment to 5% for Black men with a degree and 3% for Black women with a degree.

According to NCES, around 37% of Black people aged 18-24 enrolled in college in 2018. A 2019 study found that a growing number of students from low-income families attended university, increasing from 12% in 1996 to 20% in 2016. A study released in 2020 showed that more than 5.3 million students were from immigrant families. It’s no surprise that today’s student landscape in the U.S. is more diverse, but those students face their own unique set of challenges when navigating post-secondary life.

“While colleges want these students on their campuses, especially the more selective ones, these institutions often do not provide the necessary academic and social support needed for these students to truly acclimate to the college environment,” highlights Sara Harberson, CEO and Founder of and Application Nation. “Their privileged counterparts may have more options and choices for their future, but a college education, even with the isolation and debt they incur, can feel like the only pathway that may lead to greater financial and social mobility for these students.”

Research shows that family plays a pivotal role in a young person’s need to go to college. Families are typically expected to provide educational tools and opportunities to young people such as exposure to enriching activities, access to quality schooling, and familiarity with educational processes. However, it’s no secret that providing these resources requires socioeconomic capital.

“For black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families (in terms of their parents’ education), the estimates of the return to college selectivity remain large, even in models that adjust for unobserved student characteristics,” a 2011 study highlights. 

The study further acknowledges that students of color and students from less-educated families often rely on colleges for support with job-networking opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to due to the neighborhoods they reside in and the environments they have access to. They typically aren’t able to rely on their family and friends for opportunities like their more privileged counterparts can. Living in richer neighborhoods and attending private school, for example, afford those with wealth to rub shoulders with the elite—this in itself can open a number of doors.

Considering the average white family has nearly eight times the wealth of the average Black family, it's evident that Black students aren’t as likely to benefit from the generational wealth transfer required to sustain options outside of college. Instead of receiving money from their parents, some may be faced with the reality of having to give money to their parents, eating into their own resources. This is especially true of low-income families.

This also means that enriching experiences such as gap years and internships are sometimes not viable options for Black and minority students. According to a 2020 Survey, a large proportion of those taking a gap year (78%) come from predominantly white, economically-advantaged households. Over half (60%) of the survey respondents did not earn any money at all during their gap year, suggesting the need and ability to rely on financial support from parents which many marginalized families cannot offer.

Internships have similar barriers to entry that make them inaccessible to marginalized students. Forty-three percent of internships at for-profit companies are unpaid which suggests that the only people who can afford to do them are those with access to the bank of mom and dad. With the aforementioned generational wealth gap in mind, a lot of young people from Black and low-income backgrounds are excluded solely on the basis of affordability. 2019 research also revealed that minority students are less likely to obtain paid internships overall.

For many minority students, a college education can feel like an obligation that is necessary to partially overcome discrimination and racism faced in employment. With the earnings inequality so distinct, especially for Black people without college degrees, obtaining one can at least be a stepping stone towards economic mobility.

Pew research found that “having a college degree improves Americans’ chances of surpassing their parents’ family income and wealth” while also noting that “Americans whose parents were at the top and bottom of the wealth ladder are likely to be at the top and bottom themselves.” For those at the bottom, college comes with a lot of pressure. The inexplicit expectation to help their family climb the wealth ladder leaves the option of not attending university as a mere fantasy.

With this in mind, Harberson voices her concern with the upcoming US Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action and how this will impact college admissions for marginalized and low-income students. “Many experts, including myself, believe that affirmative action will be struck down in June given the political makeup of the justices. The future of underrepresented minorities in higher education hangs in the balance. Most of us are more concerned than ever before that even if these students want to go to college, they will feel even less encouraged to do so.”

“Ultimately, it is up to the colleges to make an undergraduate education not only accessible but affordable for all,” she concludes.

Despite the benefits of college education, it should be noted that it doesn’t entirely eliminate disparities relating to race and wealth. For example, from 2000 to 2018, the Black-white racial wage gap increased at every level of education. According to research, Black families headed by a person with a college degree have significantly lower median wealth than white families headed by a high school dropout. This suggests that while a college degree increases wages, a disproportionate imbalance remains.

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  1. June 2014, Young Invincibles, CLOSING THE RACE GAP: Alleviating Young African American Unemployment Through Education

  2. Hussar, B., Zhang, J., Hein, S., Wang, K., Roberts, A., Cui, J., Smith, M., Bullock Mann, F., Barmer, A., and Dilig, R. (2020). The Condition of Education 2020 (NCES 2020-144). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved [date] from asp?pubid=2020144.

  3. Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earnings Data Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger NBER Working Paper No. 17159 June 2011 JEL No. I21,J31

  4. Joint Economic Committee Democrats, Education Can Help Narrow the Racial Wealth Gap, but Structural Solutions Are Needed to Close It  

  5. Nina Hoe Gallagher, Ph.D., Kempie Blythe, M.A., Gap Year Alumni Survey 2020, AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps 2015, October 2020

  6. The Pew Research Charitable Trusts, Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations

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