The Two-Faced Promise of Higher Education

The four-year college degree has long been the gold standard and the surest gateway to economic opportunity in the United States. But while the four-year degree provides access to the entry-level work and graduate education that lead, in turn, to the best-paying jobs, it starkly divides Americans by race. Often lauded as the great equalizer, education is instead a modern segregationist. It pretends to connect individual merit with individual opportunity while instead preserving or compounding long standing racial advantages and disadvantages. Rather than dismantling our country’s shameful history of racial stratification, it extends and intensifies our racial divides.

Our research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) has repeatedly shown just how complicit education is in replicating White privilege. White students are disproportionately enrolled at selective colleges where there are more resources to help ensure they graduate. With students’ educational pathways predetermined by a K–12 system that also unfairly distributes resources such as access to college prep courses, disparate outcomes on college campuses seem almost inevitable. 

These inequalities don’t stop when students leave college. Instead, they are projected into the labor market, where they harden into continued racial disparities. In 2016, inequities in educational attainment and earnings added up to staggering wage gaps. Among workers with good jobs (those paying a median of $65,000 annually), White workers as a group were paid $554 billion more annually than they would have been if good jobs and earnings from those jobs had been equitably distributed. In contrast, Black workers were paid $202 billion less and Latino workers $352 billion less than if that had been the case. 

Meanwhile, White adults are more likely than in the past—and more likely than Black or Latino adults—to have a four-year college degree, intensifying their edge in a labor market that rewards postsecondary credentials. The White surge to college has set up White Americans for decades of continued economic dominance. White families send their children to well-funded public schools so they can gain admission to selective colleges, have access to well-paying jobs, and generally marry other White people with similar backgrounds. Then they buy homes in neighborhoods where their children can attend good public schools, and the cycle repeats.

Of course, we college educators can claim (and usually do) that racial inequality started long before the college admissions officers got involved. But that’s a dodge. As educators, we are all connected as interlocking gears in the institutional machinery of racial injustice.

We need reforms. Lots of them. Some of our ideas include:

  • Create one system: We need to treat our educational institutions, social programs, and economy as all one system by connecting the dots between separate institutional and policy silos. This will allow us to establish accountability for racial equity across different silos and to stop the finger-pointing that often occurs from one silo to the next. We need transparency and shared standards on educational and economic outcomes in all parts of the system, including at the postsecondary institution and program level.
  • Provide need-based aid: We need to recognize that college graduation begins in preschool and commit to equalizing educational outcomes by race from children’s very earliest engagement with school. To achieve this, we don’t need equal educational funding—we need unequal funding based on relative educational needs throughout the education system. The populations with the greatest demonstrated need should get the most financial and programmatic support.
  • Strengthen pathways from two-year to four-year degrees: We need to allow community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees, and we need to demand that all public four-year colleges allocate at least 20 percent of junior-year enrollment to students who transfer from two-year colleges. Thirty percent of Black students begin their postsecondary experiences at a community college, and only 13 percent of these students earn a bachelor’s degree within 5 years. 
  • Improve college and career counseling: We need a much more robust counseling and student support system that links high schools, colleges, and labor markets to individual student interests, values, and personalities—and that rigorously avoids tracking students toward particular educational or economic goals based on their race or ethnicity.

Meaningful reform will only come when we move beyond the overblown merit myth that justifies the pious elitism at the core of our education system. That myth is based on the idea that the best students study hard, do the homework, and ace the tests that get them into the best colleges and the best-paying and most powerful careers. On its face, that seems fair. But if you look closer, it’s also a dodge.

The idea of educational merit provides cover for deep-seated racism and elitism. It is the armor for a permanent class of the well-educated, well-paid, and powerful. Shielded by the merit myth, higher education causes as many societal ills as it cures, including widening racial gaps and social divisions. In short, our educational meritocracy creates an entitled plutocracy that ensures the intergenerational reproduction of race and class privilege.

Without the right interventions, our educational and social divisions will only deepen in the post-COVID world. But new realities can be an occasion for new choices.

We can double down on the merit myth, or we can make our K–12 education system and our colleges true instruments of upward mobility. We can begin to create change by investing in true educational equity. In the 21st century, education can make us healthy, wealthy, and wise—but only if it is available to all. Education is essential to republics. It is the enemy of authoritarianism. Either we will become a republic with equal educational opportunity at its core, or eventually we won’t be much of a republic at all.


To read more about CEW’s analysis of racial stratification in higher education, visit our blog.