By Mariam Williams
About one week after I published my last post debating the merits of a four-year degree in today’s economy, CNN’s “Black in America 2” debuted. The program featured a story on The Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn. Although most of the students are black or Hispanic and come from disadvantaged homes, they defy statistics: every single student graduating from the school goes on to college.
“During the program the principal of the school said “education is the great equalizer” and this is a statement in which I truly believe. Most of the life experiences and opportunities I have had and the self-confidence I hold are all results of my education. …
But one of my buddies brought up a very valid point — today many college graduates are drowning in debt and unemployed thanks to our country’s economic downturn. So is education really the great equalizer or just a waste of money?”
“I think my thoughts on the value/futility of education are well known, but I must add a couple of caveats to my usual rants: 1) … The current economic climate is a pretty unusual circumstance. 2) There is absolutely nothing else you can encourage children in poor or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds to do to emerge from poverty other than to get an education …” (read my full comment here)
A few days later, I opened my July 2009 issue of Black Enterprise (I know I was late) and found this statistic: the jobless rate for African Americans with four-year degrees was 7.2% in March 2009, up 4.5 percentage points since March 2007, before the recession hit. (My, that seems so long ago!) Compare that to a jobless rate of 3.8% in March 2009 and 1.6% in March 2007 for white Americans with four-year degrees, and you have to ask (again), is education really the great equalizer or just a waste of money?
As we can see through the above statistics, it’s neither, at least not in this economy. The jobless rates in March 2009, without regard to educational attainment, were 7.9% for whites and 13.3% for blacks. (In March 2007, the numbers were 3.8% and 8.4%, respectively. Jump to the table at the end if any of that was confusing.) Evidently, higher education does make people of every race considerably less likely to be unemployed, but certainly not equally less likely to be unemployed.
Reasons these statistics are what they are will be or have been debated on another blog at another time. The real question for me is, should we continue to hype education, especially to black youth, the way we do? To commodify it as the single, strongest, most assured pathway to professional and financial success?
For some perspective, I turned to Andrea Houston, president of the Education First Foundation and founder of its main educational program, the Showcase of HBCU. The Showcase is a college and career fair geared mainly toward African American youth. “Educating students about the need to make education their first priority” is among the program’s objectives.
Houston called the lack of job opportunities for college graduates in the current economy an American issue, not just a black one. Having recently discussed the subject with other local members of the National Association of Women Business Owners, she said, “the ladies of NAWBO are still sending their children to college, so we have to still keep sending our socio-economically disadvantaged students to college—those who are college material.”
Houston recommended that those who are not college material “do the Booker T. Washington thing and get a skill” but warned that a degree could be “the weed-out process for the next blue-collar generation.” She said, “We’re not going to have a blue-collar generation; it’s going to be green-collar, and they’ll want to know that you have some type of education.”
And although that type of education will probably be through an associates degree or certificate program at a community college and not a four-year school, Houston can still head the Showcase with confidence. Referring to children from at-risk populations, she explained, “You can’t just tell them to work hard. You have to still show them opportunities.” As The Capital Preparatory Magnet School proves by sharing its campus with a community college and allowing all students to take college-level classes, when you expose kids to opportunities, it occurs to them to take advantage of the opportunities.
I can’t quite call education “the great equalizer.” It’s not the end-all, be-all for professional and financial success. And even though I’m among the 7.2 percent of college-educated blacks over 25 who are living life laid off, I don’t think education is a (complete) waste of money either. I had higher expectations of my degree, but I’ve also had more opportunities—some I didn’t take advantage of—and I’ve been exposed to more positive influences than anyone from my lower-class neighborhood who didn’t go to college has been exposed to. I’m certainly a better researcher and statistician for my time, and perhaps a better writer too. But to be employed in a job that requires a college degree and more than pays for the outstanding loans I took on to obtain it? At this point, only that will erase all my doubts. Until then, I won’t hype education or commodify it, but I still won’t tell youth from disadvantaged backgrounds anything different.
(And as much as I would sometimes like to, I won’t follow this example and sue my alma mater either.)
Unemployment rate by race and educational attainment, pre-recession and during
March 2007 March 2009
Black college educated 2.7 7.2
White college educated 1.6 3.8
Black general pop 8.4 13.3
White general pop 3.8 7.9
All numbers reflect the seasonally adjusted rates
General population is ages 16 and up
Jobless rate by educational attainment available for ages 25 and up from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Black Enterprise cites the Economic Policy Institute for its statistics
© Mariam Williams, aka The Pink-Slipped Girl, and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mariam Williams and The Pink Slip Blog – Living Life Laid Off or http://livinglifelaidoff.com, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Any use and/or duplication of any photo contained within this blog without express and written permission from Mariam Williams is strictly prohibited.