American higher education is a scam. This isn’t a secret; reports show the student debt balloon is growing well into the trillions, and more of us are picking up side jobs and hustles to make ends meet than ever before. Despite consistent effort, Black millennial graduates still earn less on average than their white and Asian counterparts without a high school diploma, which isn’t only telling, it’s alarming.
Who sold us on the idea that college was the only way to attain success in this country? Possibly the baby boomer generation who had the luxury of attending college for the low price of 30 silver shillings. Either way, our 18- and 19-year-old selves eagerly signed up to earn debt before we were old enough to earn a living. And like a blonde-haired vixen named Joanne, college scammed us all. Running off with our financial freedom and leaving us $80,000 paper cuts. You would think with the financial chaos the American college system has caused in so many Black households, Black millennial parents would think twice before volunteering their children as tribute. But on the contrary, Black college enrollment continues to grow, despite significant enrollment declines overall for the past six yeatrs. So, I have to ask, what would motivate Black millennials to feed their college-aged students to a vicious debt system that they themselves have yet to escape?
Well there’s the age-old argument that college improves Black communities simply by letting Black folk attend, implying that the benefit isn’t what you receive after college but during. See, there’s long been an undertone of elitism sewn into the fabric of American higher education, mainly as it relates to Black Americans. When America slowly began to lift legislation forbidding African Americans from learning to read and write, early attendees were believed to be of a higher caliber than those who did not, be it for financial or academic reasons. This solidified the belief that college could “civilize” the Black American, exposing him or her to a world of information, cultures and experiences they otherwise would never be exposed to. College was in many ways packaged as the solution to poverty, an escape route from the Black experience in America. But educated Blacks weren’t just trying to escape mentally, they were trying to escape physically. Vowing never to return to the poverty-stricken neighborhoods many came from. Which meant, essentially, college wasn’t strengthening Black communities, it was weakening them, siphoning the most valuable resources directly from the soil that produced them. And like many a baby boomer before us, we waived our diplomas around like freedom papers, eagerly awaiting our seat on the suburb bound bus, only to find that as we drove towards our destination, the finish line slipped further and further out of sight. Some of us found ourselves on buses with no gas, some of our buses ended up lost, some of us wrecked, all while those we left behind bragged about our escape. “You know such n such daughter went to Howard?” Here we were, banking our futures on the fairness of institutions that well into the 1950’s would defy even the constitution to keep Black students out of their classrooms. Surely, we’d have something to show for that.
And we do. Debt. A ton of debt. A ton of debt that we’ll likely never pay our way out of. And why is that? Because although more Black students are attending universities (65%), less are actually graduating from college (40%). And even more than we attend, we default. More specifically, we default at a rate of 49% within 12 years of graduating. But wait, there’s more. According to the same data, Black students take out bigger federal loans, receive higher financial aid, and experience dampened earning potential even with a degree. Even when the head of household has a degree, Black families experience a net worth worth 1/8th that of white families with identical educations. What this boils down to is that college is a greater risk for Black students, one that doesn’t offer the same reward that it does students of other races. Despite three severe economic downturns in this country, the median net worth of white college grads rose over 86% since 1992 and that number looks even better for Asian graduates at 90%. Meanwhile, the net worth for Black graduates dropped 56%. We’re achieving more but gaining nothing. This brings us to a reality that many choose not to accept, college is not the great equalizer for Black Americans. In fact, college hasn’t cured the racial wealth gap in this country, it’s incubated it.
And yet here we are, celebrating this years’ grads. Make no mistake, they deserve the accolades, but where is the crowd 6 months from now to make sure that degree is paying off? College doesn’t guarantee Black students much of anything but debt and still, knowing what we know, we ship our kids off every fall, rolling the dice for a consecutive generation. College has become a badge of honor in our community. We carry our degrees around like war medals, using them to gauge the intrinsic value of the Black people around us. We all have a friend who approaches dating like a job interview, eager to roll out her accomplishments in the face of any potential suitor. She might not have a job, she might be drowning in debt, but dammit, that resume is impressive. We’ve been trying to educate our way out of the Black condition in this country but it’s not our behavior within the system, it’s the system itself that keep us in this place. Not that our behavior has changed anyway. To date, Black students continue to be over-represented in low-paying majors such as Liberal Arts, Psychology, Humanities, Social Work and so forth. And when students do earn degrees in STEM, they do so in the lowest earning degree programs (women in biology, men in civil engineering). No amount of union parties, homecoming celebrations, or probates in the quad could make up for the financial ruin that college has left us in. And yet, we persist.
So since we’re not going to stop attending, we should at least do so responsibly. Pursuing ones’ academic passion isn’t the problem, the problem lies in doing so uninformed. Once informed, once we accept that the system will not change for us, we change how we navigate the system. We do so by utilizing the two-year community college program effectively, by creating community lending circles, and taking College Level Examination Proficiency (CLEP) courses that allow students to test out of proficient courses. We do so by investing in pre-college preparation programs, by researching industry projections for careers related to our children’s degree programs and by allowing our children to commute from home throughout their time in college. We do so by selecting college programs based on Black student retention and graduation ratings, not popularity, and by actively participating in our students’ college careers. We can no longer afford to be lackadaisical about these decisions and we don’t get to treat college like a second parent, handing our children over to for-profit businesses expecting charity work. Being at the bottom of every measurable category is not fun. Having our net worth not budge one decimal point since the abolishing of slavery is not fun. Being a slave to college debt before you can legally have a drink is not fun. And if this conversation makes you feel like I’m sucking all the fun out of the Black college experience, then it’s time you re-examine your definition of fun.