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Students at a Chicago public school.

Getty Images/Tim Boyle

Higher education is not the root of all equity gaps. But it can be a vehicle to lessen those gaps.

Historically, it has not been. Equity gaps between students based on their race, ethnicity and income persist and thrive at most institutions.

For Black students, simply accessing higher education remains difficult, particularly at four-year colleges. At some institutions, including public flagship and research universities, access has worsened for Black students in recent years.

Until real progress is made on this issue, among others, higher ed leaders' calls for diversity and inclusion, public statements on societal racism, and decisions to change building names or remove statues with racist legacies will continue to ring hollow.

One of the first steps in closing these gaps is to realize where they begin and why.

Bad Odds From Birth

“As soon as you start measuring differences in any outcomes for Black and white kids, you would find differences, you would find gaps,” said Emma García, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

These “opportunity gaps” can be found when comparing any nonwhite, non-Asian American student with their white or Asian American peers, García said. They can also be found when comparing different socioeconomic classes.

Many of these gaps are driven by poverty, she said. And before a Black child is even born, the odds are stacked against them.

For example, maternal mortality rates vary greatly by race. Black, American Indian and Alaska Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. These statistics reflect a “failure of the system,” she said, noting the lack of a policy response to these gaps

“We have a racial caste system in the United States,” said Leila Morsy, an academic lead of teaching and learning in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University in Australia.

Because of this structure, Black children are far more likely to encounter adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs. Research has shown that adults with several ACEs are more likely to face mental and physical health issues later in life than their peers with fewer or no ACEs.

These experiences include any frightening or threatening experiences, such as losing a home to a fire, losing a parent, witnessing violence or having a parent who is incarcerated, Morsy said.

If children have an adult with them who has the time and energy to explain the experiences and help the child make sense of them, they are more likely to have healthy coping mechanisms to deal with toxic stress.

In response to stress, the body will produce hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which affect almost every organ and tissue in the body and trigger the fight-or-flight response. The hormones increase blood pressure and heart rates, dilate blood vessels, and also limit the parts of the brain that control memory and decision making.

If adverse childhood experiences are frequent or sustained over long periods of time, then the child’s physiology fails to return to normal, Morsy said.

“This is a physiological response in your body where you become more prone to certain health and behavioral morbidities,” Morsy said. The result can be stunted brain growth, diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex, disrupted metabolism and blood pressure, and a compromised immune system.

People with more ACEs are more prone to viral infections, more likely to suffer respiratory infections and even more likely to become pregnant as teenagers.

Research has shown that low-income and Black children were more likely to have more adverse experiences than their white and more affluent peers by kindergarten.

Racial discrimination and housing segregation are just two factors that bake in the chances that Black children will experience ACEs early on. Having more ACEs does not determine whether a child will go to college, Morsy said, but it does increase the likelihood they won’t.

Which is why, when looking for solutions to help close equity gaps in higher education, early childhood education and interventions are important.

“I think of children’s educational outcomes and students’ higher education outcomes as symptoms of the conditions in which they are born and live and learn, more than the other way around,” Morsy said. “We should as a country look to remedying the social and racial inequities as a mechanism to improve people’s access and outcomes in higher education, rather than the other way around.”

Enclosures and Hierarchy

The inequities and structural hurdles in society start early on for many Black children, and they continue throughout life.

In the K-12 system, various forces set up challenges for nonwhite students.

“Education itself has been a very, very violent place for Black students,” said Damien Sojoyner, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

Black students are held back through various “enclosures,” which Sojoyner describes as ways to corral Black freedom, especially if those freedoms run counter to state desires.

Examples within education include cultural enclosures. The increase in testing in K-12 helps make the case for removing subjects like art from the curriculum.

“Many of the Black schools were once havens for Black cultural expression,” Sojoyner said. From the 1940s to the 1980s, many Black artists were fostered in that setting.

“Increasingly, as standards are set, Black culture is not part of the standard,” he said. “If you understand that Black schools were also sites of rebellion and resistance and these cultural formations were integral to making that happen, then you understand why this happens.”

Another example is the carceral enclosure. Majority-Black high schools were policed before prisons were expanded in California, Sojoyner said. So in this case, what happened in education informed steps taken by the state.

Kevin Clay, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes Black communities need to reclaim their K-12 schools.

“School has become just a place where students are conferred credentials,” he said, but that doesn’t protect Black students from societal inequities or teach them about why they exist.

“Black kids in poor schools have very little understanding of the history of social policy positions that have led to Black poverty,” Clay said. “You see Black youth who typically blame themselves and blame their communities. They think about poverty as this one-to-one effect of hard work.”

In his research, Clay has seen many Black students blame themselves if they realize they were underprepared for college, and that can contribute to mental health issues.

"We have to talk about class as a position from which we can collectively struggle."

-- Kevin Clay

If students learned more history of how society fosters inequities, like the history of redlining or suburbanization, among other things, it could lift some of the burden off their shoulders, Clay said.

“We have to stop talking about poverty as an isolated individual trait,” he said. “We have to talk about class as a position from which we can collectively struggle.”

Sojoyner disagrees. Many Black youth understand how the world works against them, he said.

But the way those in the United States understand poverty can make the situation difficult. For example, if a Black student receives a scholarship for college, they may feel it’s a weight hanging over their head.

The scholarship is a cloud of expectations. It’s also leverage that can be used against them if they speak up.

“Blackness cannot be in the same space with Western modes of being, unless it is in the hierarchal position of being subservient,” he said.

What happens in K-12 can color a student’s perspective of education for the rest of their lives. Priscilla Mayowa, a dual-enrollment student at North Hennepin Community College and Bemidji State University in Minnesota, expects to not feel welcomed in educational environments in this country.

Mayowa moved to the United States from Nigeria for high school. She said she experienced many microaggressions from her teachers because she is Black and an immigrant. She feels that her teachers in high school, and now also in college, assume she doesn’t know things. They also judge her for mistakes more harshly than they do her white peers, she said.

Mayowa struggles with impostor syndrome, the constant feeling of doubt about her skills, talents or accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud," she said. That insecurity, combined with the different treatment by instructors, has hurt her learning experiences.

“Sometimes I don’t turn in work early because I’m scared that my teacher will judge me for it,” she said, adding that she would sometimes rather not turn in anything at all because at least her teachers expect that.

College advisers also tried to push Mayowa to study nursing, a program that enrolls many Black women, she said, which delayed her progress. She wants to go to law school, so she has been studying accounting.

But a relationship she formed with a Black staff member encouraged Mayowa to ask for help when she needs it and to push back when faculty are unfair.

By now, Mayowa is “used to the fact that this country is racist.”

House on Fire

Beyond the current structural inequities in society are the historical inequities that created a ripple effect -- redlining, which led to housing segregation that persists to this day. Policies and racism that prevented many Black soldiers from getting the benefits of the GI Bill. Banks that refused to make loans to Black people, or offered them loans at higher rates.

“Race amplifies the effects of poverty,” said Anthony Abraham Jack, assistant professor of education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

Black children are more likely to witness crime or other events that tax their mental bandwidth, he said. Some of his students had to pass through metal detectors every morning in high school. One student equated school with darkness because it couldn’t afford to keep the lights on in the hallways.

“That was their orientation to learning every morning,” he said.

Much of the disparity comes down to the differences in resources between schools. Research has found that predominantly white school districts received $23 billion more in state and local funding in 2016 than predominantly nonwhite school districts. The average nonwhite district receives $2,226 less per enrolled student than a white school district due to community wealth gaps.

“Higher education cannot immediately address these issues,” Jack said. “But they can do two things: account for them in how they do admissions and prepare for those students, as well as lobby for initiatives and policies that aid in the reduction of these equity gaps.”

Colleges have to recognize that students don’t come to them from a bubble, said Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. The root issue of it all is racism.

“It’s part of a structural issue. It permeates all facets of life,” Baker said.

Colleges can improve in various ways, but first they have to be intentional. Often, decisions are driven by public relations, she said.

Fixing these problems requires more than a few changes. It will take returning to why colleges were created in the first place and grappling with whether the fundamental structure needs to change.

“To a certain extent, their reason for being was never to address issues of poverty,” Sojoyner said. “Rather, it was to completely socialize you to ascend your previous station in life or to civilize you -- to become a vehicle that understands you shouldn’t be impoverished, and if you are, that’s your own fault.”

Even some historically Black colleges and universities weren’t founded with the best of intentions, he said. When Morehouse and Spelman Colleges were set up by the Rockefellers, they were intended to create a Black working class, which is why students initially received training certificates, not diplomas.

At the same time, the Rockefeller family founded the University of Chicago to create a white, male managerial class, he said.

Now -- even before the COVID-19 pandemic -- higher education has been facing a “rising tide of mass poverty” driven by shrinking numbers of wealthy, white high school graduates as the country’s population becomes increasingly Black and Latinx, causing a disjuncture between the affluent students who know the hidden language of higher education and lower-income students who seek degrees to get careers.

Many of the solutions touted by colleges are merely stopgaps, Sojoyner said. They don’t address the root issue of for whom these institutions were created.

“It looks weird now, because it’s like there’s a house on fire and someone is like, ‘Let’s send in the painters,’” he said.

It’s important to not look at all of this purely from a deficit perspective, said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on closing opportunity gaps.

“People can draw strength from what they’ve been through and their ability to overcome it,” Jones said. This knowledge has led many students toward activism, but it’s time for higher education to stop relying on that free labor and start making real changes, she said.

Jones and other experts said it’s important to note the effects that racism have on white students as well. While racism isn’t targeted at them, white students often learn in college that much of what they had been taught earlier in life and had taken for granted as truth was not accurate.

“The only emotional breakdowns I ever saw in college were from white people responding to conversations about race,” she said. “Their whole paradigms were being disrupted, and it was traumatizing for them.”

Can Higher Education Change?

Higher education can’t solve racism and societal inequity on its own. But the industry can take steps to be part of the solution.

It could advocate for more support for early childhood and K-12 programs like Head Start, which have been proven to help equity gaps, Morsy said.

Colleges also can better train the teachers who shape students’ minds in K-12.

They can do more to support and help Black students become teachers. Black students are less likely to face the kind of discipline that would take them out of the classroom and disrupt their learning if they have a Black teacher, according to research from Constance Lindsay, an assistant professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The only emotional breakdowns I ever saw in college were from white people responding to conversations about race."

-- Tiffany Jones

Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school also are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to attend college, Lindsay said.

To attract more Black students to pursue teaching careers, how such careers are promoted may need to change. Some Black students are not attracted to majoring in education because graduate schools of education are not typically diverse, Lindsay said, and they often don’t feature social justice frameworks in their curricula or embedded in campus life.

Ebony McGee, an associate professor of education at Vanderbilt University, said many students of color have an “equity ethic.”

“Many Black students who were marginalized and have experienced racial suffering want to challenge those inequities through their work,” McGee said, adding that money is often not the sole goal.

This shows up in science, technology, engineering and math majors especially, she said. Right now, engineering is advertised to students as a way to beat China or create artificial intelligence. Instead, colleges should teach engineering from an equity-minded perspective. Black students could use STEM degrees to fix the infrastructure or improve the environment in their communities, for example, she said.

“There is a totally different message that I think would attract a more diverse and more morally sound group of folks,” McGee said.

College admissions tests are also barriers to a college education. Only about half of the nation’s high schools offer calculus and physics courses, which many colleges require students to complete, said C. J. Powell, a higher education program analyst at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a large coalition of civil and human rights groups that fights against discrimination.

Powell was a college counselor in rural North Carolina, where he saw low-income and Black students who have to jump many hurdles to get access to college.

Students need better counselors or access to a college prep pipeline so they can be aware of what they need to do to get into college and succeed, he said. High schools also must stop tracking certain students into courses that won’t prepare them for college. And they should stop tracking those students into remedial courses that could delay their graduation.

Once students are in college, institutions need to ensure faculty and leadership are diverse so students are more open to engaging with them, Powell said. They also need to recruit more Black students, perhaps by looking at more and different high schools in their recruiting. Diversity offices or leaders also need better resources so they can “put some teeth behind policies.”

Colleges also need to listen to their Black students.

“A lot of institutions are, all of a sudden, renaming buildings,” Powell said. “Now that they’ve done the thing that was always easy to do, they need to make sure they listen to students about the things that are not easy to do … If they don’t do that, this will all be lip service.”

Jack believes colleges should also use holistic admissions and consider social and economic inequities in students' background. Black students often don’t have long lists of extracurricular activities in which they participated in high school because they may have had to work to help support their families. And some may not have done well on admissions tests because they couldn’t afford tutoring or to take the test multiple times.

“Race provides privileges and it denies privileges in a very, very real way,” Jack said.

Jack also advocates for doing away with the hidden language of academia. A practice as simple as defining what office hours are can help decode language that more privileged students take for granted. Students also need to understand they can ask for help, which is something Jack has seen many struggle with.

"Race provides privileges and it denies privileges in a very, very real way."

-- Anthony Abraham Jack

If a student went to a high school that was overcrowded, with young teachers and few resources, he said they may be reticent to ask for help because they’ll assume it doesn’t exist.

“You can be extremely motivated, but if you don’t have the opportunities to express that motivation into action, you enter college with an unpracticed hand,” he said.

Several experts said colleges need to invest in mental health services, particularly diverse counselors and ones who are trained to be trauma-informed and culturally responsive.

Cost is also a big factor. College assistance programs that solely cover tuition aren’t helpful because many students need funds to pay basic living and other expenses, Jack said.

Policy solutions include canceling student loan debt and doubling the federal Pell Grant, said Rosa García, director of postsecondary education and work development at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit that focuses on policy solutions for low-income people.

Colleges also need to center communities of color and social justice through their curriculums, García said. That can be done through strengthening African American studies departments and requiring all students to take a course on ethnic studies or racial justice.

This will also teach white students about racism and inequity, Jones said, so they can use their positions of power to create more change.

McGee was hesitant to bring up too many solutions. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of Black people to find the answers to this problem, she said.

“White people aren’t stupid. You got us into this mess -- why is it our job to get us out?” she said. “Put your minds together and figure out how to make this world more equitable.”

That can seem like a Herculean task, but not because research presenting solutions for society to use doesn’t exist. With all this talk, data and knowledge, how optimistic can one be that things will change in the future when so many problems remain intractable?

“Now is one of the moments to really uncover and realize the potential of what universities could be doing and how to struggle for actual freedom, so that everybody can live in a way that is not utopic, but is a just society,” Sojoyner said.

He’s optimistic, because he’s seen attitudes shift in his lifetime. He researches education in the prison system and remembers going to the inaugural conference of Critical Resistance in 1997. Back then, people looked at you like you were crazy if you mentioned abolishing prison, he said.

“Fast-forward 23 years, and now that is the conversation,” he said. “I can’t even begin to explain what a seismic shift that is.”

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