Promise and Reality in Higher Ed

Education, we are told, is the great equalizer in the United States. It is the “key to the American Dream,” and the pathway to a more egalitarian society.

The data backs this up in many ways. The average Latino and African American earns less than the average white American and they are less likely to obtain a college degree. We know that the more educated you are the more you will earn over your lifetime and the less likely you will be to be unemployed. By many measures, education is the key to your individual and group prosperity.

It stands to reason that the promise of higher education to surmount our historic and engrained structural inequalities is only as strong as the institution’s own ability to surmount those inequities as it educates. If education is inherently unequal and inequitable then the effects it produces will also be.


The conclusion of this report from researchers at Georgetown University is that US colleges and universities are failing on that front. (You can read the full report here.)

In the report, researcher find that “The postsecondary system mimics and magnifies the racial and ethnic inequality in educational preparation it inherits from the K-12 system and then projects this inequality into the labor market.” Far from being the great equalizer we want it to be, education is becoming another way to fracture equality of opportunity based on race and class.

This isn’t a surprising conclusion to anyone working on diversity in higher education. It also doesn’t mean those poor or working class and/or nonwhite students who get in and do well aren’t working hard and achieving a great deal.

But it should help fuel the debate about what equality and equity mean for the 21st century. For colleges like mine, I hope it helps us confront the ways we fail to confront the larger problems of equality and equity while we hide behind “excellence.”

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