Monday Reading List: The Value of Higher Education & Racism in Boston

Bryan Caplan of The Atlantic wants to challenge the notion that college is for everyone:

The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education. It takes many guises—classroom training, apprenticeships and other types of on-the-job training, and straight-up work experience—but they have much in common. All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning by doing, not learning by listening. Research, though a bit sparse, suggests that vocational education raises pay, reduces unemployment, and increases the rate of high-school completion. Defenders of traditional education often appeal to the obscurity of the future. What’s the point of prepping students for the economy of 2018, when they’ll be employed in the economy of 2025 or 2050?

Caplan's rhetorical counterpoint at the end more or less summarizes my own perspective. I'm struggling to understand the broader argument of his piece, though, other than that higher education does not perfectly prepare students for their specific vocations. Now is a particularly peculiar time for focusing on such a picayune perspective of higher learning. More than ever our Democracy demands a populace that can think critically well beyond one's own vocation, and this article feels hopelessly committed to a different sort of reality than the one in which we are living.

giphy (44).gif

That's not to say there aren't huge problems with higher education. Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report looks at disparities in the dispersal of financial aid:

... at the same time that the fight over issues including health care and changes in tax law has reignited the national debate over income inequality, financial aid disparities are getting worse, driven by politics, the pursuit of prestige and policies that have been shifting resources away from students with financial need ... At least 86,000 more low-income students per year are qualified to attend the most selective universities and colleges than enroll, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. On standardized admissions tests, these students score as well as or better than those who do get that privilege.

This is a much bigger problem for higher education than its overuse. Like many other corners of the American social milieu, our colleges and universities seem to reinforce existing social divisions and hierarchies. College attendance and graduation both carry an income premium, wherein people who graduate can expect to make considerably more in their lifetimes than peers who did not attend college.

In other words, it is possible to quantify the privilege that comes with a college education. Putting a price tag on privilege is important, as many folks who are hostile to the very concept of socioeconomic privilege like to roll their eyes and pretend that the word itself was invented by social justice warriors to make White men feel guilty. The reality, though, is that privilege - both earned and unearned - is a real economic phenomenon.

For example, here's The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, in their new series on racism in that city:

Despite a thriving economy fueling a downtown building boom, black residents in Massachusetts are twice as likely as their white counterparts to be unemployed. They earn sharply lower salaries when they do land jobs, have little savings, and are far less likely to own their homes. The median net worth of non-immigrant African-American households in the Boston area is just $8, the lowest in a five-city study of wealth disparities. It’s hard to ignore the dramatic contrast to the $247,500 net worth for white households in the Boston area. “That borders on insane and absurd. The disparity in Boston just transcends everything,” said William A. Darity Jr., a professor of public policy at Duke University who was one of the lead investigators of that study, which involved the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “It’s just staggering.”
giphy (46).gif

Staggering, indeed. That wealth gap is not, as conservative boot-strappers would like you to believe, the result of individual choices. It is the result of generations of sustained policy decisions, like:

  • denying Black veterans access to competitive home loans,
  • redlining,
  • unequal education systems,
  • racist policing, and
  • the very higher education disparities outlined above.

The next time someone challenges the idea of "privilege," remember these statistics. White privilege is not a punchline; it's real, measurable, and pernicious.

Have a great week!