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Does education rationing have racial undertones?

For much of this summer, I have clipped a series of articles that
raise questions about access to higher education. Though the articles
have taken different approaches, they end up asking a similar set of
questions – who should go to college and how should it be financed?

One of the articles features a bright young man who has wanted, for
much of his life, to be a chef. At eighteen, his future seems fairly
secure. He has a four-year scholarship to a culinary academy and says
that he will have a job as long as people have to eat, unlike those
“liberal arts graduates” who, after four years, may not be able to find
a good job.

Another article is about the workforce of the future. There may be
more job openings for those who have some post-secondary education, but
not a four-year degree, than there are for those who complete college.
Further, almost half of the students who enroll in four-year colleges
earn their degrees a decade later. Should these students consider
another kind of post-secondary education? There is technical training,
computer training, and another range of options. Should budget-savvy
parents ask their offspring to consider whether they really want to go
to college, the article asks? Shouldn’t parents consider another set of

Yet another article is about a young man who has finished his
college degree by combining two years of community college with two
years at the best institution in his state. He is graduating at
twenty-nine, all the wiser for the fact that his education wasn’t
“handed to him,” he had to work for it. There is a chart at the side of
this article that compares what he would have spent if he had gone
straight through in four years instead of taking the community college
route. The chart does not measure the cost of his time.

Do these articles all seem to come out of the same hymn book? While
humming, add the background sounds of welfare reform and affirmative
action. With welfare reform, or deform as it might more appropriately
be called, women in some states who have chosen to pursue a degree are
being told that they had better get out of school and into the
workforce no matter what their future plans may have been. They had
pursued education to prevent poverty and future encounters with the
welfare system, but in New York City, some policy makers have said that
scrubbing toilets is preferable to remaining on the public dole (so
what ought we do for those corporate CEO’s whose profit margin comes at
public expense?). Who should have access to higher education? If some
have their way, it will not be women on public assistance.

After the passage of California’s Proposition 209, the enrollment of
African Americans in University of California graduate and professional
schools has plummeted. Just one African American student is in the
first-year class at UC Berkeley’s Bold Hall law school. One of the
medical colleges failed to enroll a single African American student.
Who should have access to higher education? If the proponents of
Proposition 209 have their way, it certainly won’t be students of color!

It is certainly true that the workforce is in a state of flux. In
the middle of this flux, though, there are some certainties. We know
that higher education pays, and that the union card that comes from
having earned a graduate or professional degree from an elite
institution also pays. It might not pay as much for an African
American, a woman, or another person of color, but it still pays more
than the alternative.

We must also bear in mind that the policy arena is cluttered by
those graduates of elite institutions who would prune their ranks of
those who are different to maintain a comfort level and the status quo.
In other words, the class boundaries of the U.S. presidency were
expanded when William Jefferson Clinton attended Yale, pursued the
Arkansas governorship, and then the presidency. The race boundaries of
a number of cabinet positions were expanded by both this president’s
sensitivities and the fact that, through affirmative action, a number
of people were educationally prepared to take advantage of leadership
opportunities. For all of President Clinton’s policy shortcomings, the
status quo has been challenged by the cabinet that looks like America.

While there are legitimate concerns that there will be a shortage of
jobs for four-year degree holders, there are also important questions
that must be raised about ways educational rationing will be
implemented. Should only those who have the price of tuition be allowed
the opportunity to pursue a four-year education? If income rations
education, then our nation will maintain a class rigidity that flies in
the face of our demographic diversity. Should only those who pass a set
of biased tests have access to post-baccalaureate education, and should
state institutions be financed by the tax dollars of those deemed unfit
to attend those very institutions? Such a rationing system fails every
measure of fairness.

While it is important that African American educators understand
that the changing labor market may well change the nature of American
education, it is even more important to insist that African American
students have equal access to every level of education. The fact that
there will be a shortage of jobs for four-year degree holders should
not be a factor in reducing the number of African American students who
pursue that degree, especially since African Americans remain
under-represented in institutions of higher education.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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