The Promise of College: Why Expanding Access Matters

Editor's note: Last week, Spelman College President Emerita and bestselling author Beverly Daniel Tatum opened an event at the National Press Club to discuss ways by which to sustainably finance College Promise programs. Tatum's remarks emphasized the importance of these and similar programs in improving access to higher education for socioeconomically disadvantaged students. We feel Tatum's provocative statement to be a vital part of the conversation about educational access; she graciously agreed to allow us to publish her comments. 

For the first time, many Americans are questioning the value of higher education and whether it is good for society.   According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, a majority of Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) say that higher education is having a negative effect on the country.  The majority of Democrats disagree.  The study results reflect the current political divisions in our society. But is higher education the cause or a potential solution?  Why does expanding access really matter?

More young people than ever are making the choice to pursue higher education, and the incoming class of 2021 is more diverse than ever, reflecting the changing demographics of the nation.  In 1954, the year of the landmark Supreme Court Case on school segregation, Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. population was 90 percent White.  Indeed, the 2014 school year marked the first time in U.S. history that the majority of elementary and secondary school children were children of color – Black, Latinx, Asian, or American Indian. The increasing diversity of our nation can be seen in higher education institutions of all kinds. Even a highly selective institution like Harvard University has reported that this year’s class is the most diverse in their history, with students of color making up more than 50 percent of the entering class.

Though legitimate concerns about the cost of college and rising student debt are widespread, a college degree still offers a good return on the investment for those who complete their degrees.  College graduates not only earn more than non-graduates, they are less likely to experience periods of unemployment, even at the height of a recession like the one we experienced in 2008. Such economic resiliency doesn’t just benefit the individual.  Those higher earnings benefit society too, increasing its tax base and consumer activity.  But it’s not just about the money. 

I want to reflect on why expanding access and success matters in terms of our democracy.   Despite the increasing diversity of the nation, most children in the U.S. attend elementary and secondary schools which do not reflect that diversity.  Old patterns of segregation persist, most notably in schools and neighborhoods.  More than 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, in every region of the country except the West, our public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1980, as measured by the percentage of Black students who are attending schools that are “90-100 percent non-White,” with the highest rates of school segregation in the Northeast. Though the South made rapid progress toward school desegregation in the late 1960s and 1970s, typically in response to court orders and other federal pressure, the Northeast did not budge much and patterns of de facto segregation in the Northeast continue to rise, slowly but steadily, such that more than 50 percent of Black students in the Northeast attend schools that are classified as “90-100 percent non-White.” Nationwide nearly 75 percent of Black students today attend so-called “majority-minority” schools, and 38 percent attend schools with student bodies that are 10 percent or less White.  Similarly, large numbers of Latinx students, approximately 80 percent, attend schools where students of color are in the majority, and more than 40 percent attend schools where the White population is less than 10% of the student body.  Both Black and Latinx students are much more likely than White students to attend a school where 60 percent or more of their classmates are living in poverty, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs.  Separate remains unequal as schools with concentrated poverty and racial segregation are still likely to have less-experienced teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, inadequate facilities, and fewer classroom resources.

Neighborhoods once again determine school assignment, and to the extent that neighborhoods are segregated, the schools remain so.  Certainly, income matters when you are looking for housing. But we can’t overlook the way housing patterns have been shaped historically by policies and practices such as racially restrictive real estate covenants, racial steering by real estate agents, redlining of neighborhoods, and other discriminatory practices by mortgage lenders. That history includes the use by many White homeowners’ associations of physical threats and violence to keep people of color out of their neighborhoods. The legacy of these policies and practices lives on as past housing options enhance or impede the accumulation of home equity and eventually the intergenerational transmission of wealth. And though such policies are now illegal at the federal, state, and local levels, evidence suggests they haven’t been eliminated in practice.

What difference does it make? For people of color, living in a hypersegregated community increases one’s exposure to the disadvantages associated with concentrated poverty and reduces access to the benefits associated with affluent communities. Racial segregation limits access to the social networks needed for successful employment and access to other important resources, including higher education. Keeping groups separated means that community helpfulness is not shared across racial lines. Because of residential segregation, economic disadvantage and racial disadvantage are inextricably linked.

The now centuries-long persistence of residential and school segregation goes a long way toward explaining why “the Black kids are still sitting together.” In those few places where students of color and White students enter academic environments together, their lived experiences are likely to have been quite different, and racial stereotyping is likely to be an inhibiting factor in their cross-group interactions.  

Given all of this, it is perhaps no surprise that according to a 2013 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), 75 percent of Whites have entirely White social networks without any minority presence. This degree of social network racial homogeneity is significantly higher than among Black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent). Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI, writes that “the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average White Americans … talk mostly to other White people.”  The result is that most Whites are not “socially positioned” to understand the experiences of people of color. We see evidence of this lack of understanding in the news every day.

But higher education offers us an opportunity to interrupt this pattern.  Colleges and universities are among the few places where people of different racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds have the opportunity to engage with each other in more than just a superficial way.  For many students, regardless of racial background, the college environment they entered this fall is likely the most diverse learning environment they have experienced in their lives.  Colleges and universities across the nation offer students a unique opportunity to engage with people whose life experiences and viewpoints are different than their own and to develop the leadership capacity needed to function effectively in a diverse, increasingly global, world.  Learning to engage with others whose viewpoints are different from one’s own is a citizenship skill fundamental to maintaining a healthy democracy.  Ensuring access for full representation of our nation’s diversity is the prerequisite for achieving this goal.

Whether college students develop this citizenship skill, however, will depend in large part on whether the institution they attend has provided structure for those critical learning experiences to take place. Though many people ask the question that forms the title of my book, “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” it is not just the Black kids that are clustering together.  It is natural for students of all backgrounds to gravitate to the comfort of the familiar – seeking out those places where they experience a deep sense of belonging.  Sometimes that sense of belonging comes from spending time with same-experience peers (e.g., those who may be of the same racial background, or share the same religious beliefs, or speak the same home-language), and there is nothing wrong with that.  But the development of the skills for democracy requires stepping out of one’s comfort zone and engaging with difference. Institutions that are intentional in stimulating such intellectual growth by providing formative experiences of dialogue across lines of difference (ideological as well as sociological) can help students develop the skills they need to be effective citizens in an increasingly complex world and perhaps help each other find common ground.

Social scientists such as Patricia Gurin at the University of Michigan and Kristie Ford at Skidmore College have found positive democratic outcomes result from sustained dialogue. Both White students and students of color demonstrate attitudinal and behavioral changes, including increased self-awareness about issues of power and privilege, better cross-racial interaction, less fear of race-related conflict, and greater civic engagement during and after college.  In this era of increased racial tension and limited civil discourse, the unique opportunity that higher education has to be a force for positive change should not be missed.  But it can’t happen unless the student body reflects that diversity of experience.

Or to state it another way, we need college access programs and the diversity they make possible in order to fulfill the democratic potential and promise of college.  It can’t happen without that. And, the health of our democracy depends on it. 

Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., president emerita of Spelman College, is a psychologist and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race (20th Anniversary Edition), (NY: Basic Books, 2017)

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