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The economic and educational disadvantages of low-income black students who struggle to complete college are well-documented. While black students at elite universities don’t necessarily fit into that category, a new book says they face social and institutional obstacles of their own – obstacles that ultimately drive them away from the high-status, high-paying jobs that they’re qualified for in fields such as engineering, science, finance and information technology. And while the reasons are complex, universities are partly at fault, the book argues.

Black students who graduate from elite colleges consistently gravitate toward less prestigious – though by no means less important – jobs in fields perceived as directly addressing social and racial inequities, such as education, social work and community and nonprofit organizing, the author found.

In an interview about her controversial new book, Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America’s Young Black Elite (University of Chicago Press), Maya A. Beasley explained the findings of her research and what she believes they mean for students and the colleges that educate them.

“Not everybody is going to make a great social worker…. Some are going to be fantastic brain surgeons, and we’re really missing the potential of these students because they’re not getting the information they need,” says Beasley, who is also an assistant professor of sociology and a member of the advisory board of the Institute for African Studies at the University of Connecticut. “It’s something that hasn’t been studied, and I think it’s a very important topic, particularly because I believe in people making choices that are informed and are going to fit well for them. But that’s not what’s happening, and I think there’s a systematic problem for African Americans, if a huge proportion of the population has certain types of careers that – while incredibly valuable – are also relatively lower paying, lower status, and have lower positions of power. And it’s shocking to me that students coming out of Harvard and Stanford are following that pattern.”

The Research

Beasley was inspired to look into the issue while in graduate school at Stanford University, after the dot-com boom hit. She was puzzled that none of her black peers from undergrad at Harvard University seemed to be taking part in the boom. Through a statistical analysis for her master's thesis, Beasley realized black students were largely absent from science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as other corporate fields.

Despite civil rights legislation enacted in the 1960s and ’70s, a lack of federal enforcement of and funding for black employment initiatives kept the parents of today’s college students from making significant strides, Beasley writes – and their children have modeled their career preferences accordingly. There is more occupational diversity among black employees today, but the differences as compared to whites are still significant.

For example, according to the 2000 Census, the top 20 white-collar careers among both black and white employees include elementary and secondary education as well as registered nursing. But break it down further and you’ll find that white people hold proportionately more high-status positions: lawyers, physicians, surgeons, chief executives and financial, general and operations managers. Black employees, in contrast, trend toward “service-oriented, racialized jobs” including counselors, education administrators, preschool and kindergarten teachers and community and social service specialists. Taken together, the differences in employment result in: chief executives being the fifth most common white-collar occupation among whites, but 35th among blacks; lawyers being 10th among whites but 27th among blacks; and physicians being 19th among whites but 31st among blacks.

Thus, Beasley concludes that a persistent lack of black employees within certain fields is the source of “significant economic and status disparities” between black and white populations in America.

Aiming to figure out why young black people apparently aren’t pursuing these jobs, Beasley conducted in-depth interviews with 60 elite students total -- 30 black, 30 white – between Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley. What she found made sense in light of previous research and statistics regarding who works what jobs: the aspirations of most of these students, Beasley writes, “corresponded to what is effectively the status quo.”

“Black students aspired to careers in which they have greater numbers and/or to racialized occupations,” she writes, “whereas white students showed a more diverse range of occupational interests, free of racialized substance.”

The University Role

Despite the significant role of history and culture in this trend, colleges are partly responsible as well, Beasley says. And she says one big thing they should do to remedy that is revisit the idea of black-themed student residence halls.

“The issue of housing is relatively controversial because the decision to build black-themed dorms and Hispanic-themed dorms all over in the ’80s and ’90s – in general, they were very well-intentioned,” Beasley says. “But the result of having students be so highly segregated is that they’re missing a lot.”

Some black students in Beasley’s study reported self-segregating their social interactions in part to avoid racism or stigmas they encounter on campus, a habit that has been documented in previous research on predominantly white campuses. (While black students make up 10 to 12 percent of Stanford’s undergraduates, they account for only 4 percent at Berkeley. That number has declined significantly since the system’s Board of Regents eliminated affirmative action in hiring and admissions in 1995.) Students take ample advantage of various race-based groups when they are available.

But limiting interaction between students of different ethnicities is not only harmful in the widely accepted sense that it hinders development of tolerance and empathy, Beasley argues, it also puts groups at an informational disadvantage. While she says she’s not insisting that these dorms should be eliminated, she says administrators should “acknowledge the consequences of their support for student requests to segregate themselves.”

Or, to use another word, to see that they may “ghettoize” the students.

“College offers black students chances to do the same kinds of networking and to be exposed to the same information that most white students have had their entire lives,” Beasley writes. Yet, many of the students she interviewed socialized primarily with other black peers. “While black students may derive substantial value from these networks, there is also a considerable downside to their separation from the wider campus community. Racially integrated networks provide access to information otherwise unavailable to these students, including the existence of occupations they had never considered, the awareness of how to obtain training for them, and connections to professionals (white and nonwhite) who possess them.”

Other things universities should be doing:

  • Universities need to recognize this need for diverse interaction, Beasley says, but also “provide the programming and structure to facilitate it.” So rather than just host cultural events for black students, colleges should bring in speakers in different fields, to talk about their options. They should develop educational and extracurricular activities in which all students participate.
  • Get more black students into STEM – and retain them. Some black students whom Beasley interviewed said the fear of racial antagonism steered them away from the STEM fields even before it was time to make a career decision. Some institutions, such as the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, have created special scholarship programs to get more minority students into these fields. Universities could also use incentives such as tenure or promotion or pay to encourage STEM faculty to promote undergraduate research opportunities for students who are black or from other underrepresented groups, Beasley says, though she acknowledged that fear of being targeted in affirmative action lawsuits could hinder colleges from making big moves in this area. “Unfortunately, racial representation is a cycle: the more African Americans there are in an occupation or academic field, the more there will be in the future,” Beasley writes.
  • Hire – and retain – more minority faculty members. When students see professors of color, it sends a message that an institution truly cares about diversity, Beasley writes. And more minority faculty will likely mean more (and better) courses on the plight of people of color. Too often, Beasley says, students think the only issue African Americans face is poverty, and the only great literature and art was created by old white men. Courses focused on marginalized populations should be required for students, she says. “True diversity transcends numbers and requires an institutional commitment from the top down,” Beasley writes. “Universities that express an interest in diversity should consider how consistent that message is, not only in admissions or dorm life, but in the types of courses offered and the interactions between faculty, administrators and students.”

“It is ironic, because Stanford really has devoted a lot of money and resources to making sure that they do have a diverse student population, and that that student population is happy. And I think that’s wonderful. It’s just that when you look at the end result, when all the students are going into the same fields, I feel like Stanford has missed something,” Beasley says, noting that the phenomenon is not unique to this one university. “African Americans have extremely high social and political and community values…. It would be nice if those people with those same values were in other spheres of work, for example, finance. Would African American communities have been targeted for bad mortgages if you had a higher number of black bankers? I don’t know, but I doubt it.”

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