How America’s 2-Tiered Education System and Perceptions Perpetuate Inequality

© copyright 2013 Betsy L. Angert BeThink

Income inequality raises the ire of most liberals.  At the same time, while ostensibly unaware of the veracity, these self-proclaimed Progressives are thankful for the gifts that inequity brings. Caucasians customarily receive higher wages, better health care and health care coverage.  Indeed, a pinkish person is more likely to be hired and less likely to be fired.  In the area of education, the divide cannot be more evident, that is unless we ask white persons about their careers.  Most do not realize or wish to recognize what has been their truth for all of their lifetimes. White people are privileged people. To acknowledge what is and seems so natural is to admit that one’s equalitarian philosophies are not their practices.  

The American story, or at least the one we tell ourselves is, if we work hard, beginning in school, we will achieve.  We merely need to complete our degree[s], find a job, and start a family. Every step of the way we build a foundation for a strong and stable future.  Life is good.   That is the myth that collectively, we believe.  In the United States, everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. The question is considering the prevalence of poverty in America, is this true?  

We need only look at the numbers,  and of course, our perceptions.

Black and Brown people are disproportionally poor. Those whose skin is a golden-yellow hue also struggle, more or less so, dependent on the educational level attained and the Ancestral country of origin.  Fifty [50] nations, countless ethnicities within each are identified as Asian-Americans.   A monolith? Hardly.  Refugees, persons who immigrated to the States from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam often arrive as exiles evacuees, or political expatriates. These persons tend to be less educated, a significant percentage are low-wage earners.  Statistically, the number of Asian-Americans without a high school education far exceeds the numbers of whites without.

“Specific ethnic groups, the Hmong, the Bangladeshi, have poverty rates that rival the African-American poverty rate.”   The Hmong value family and agriculture above education. Yet, the stereotype persists, perhaps chastened by the reality that Asian-Americans rather not draw attention to the discrimination they experience.  Setting that aside, with or without attentiveness our impressions, shape our reality, policies, and practices.  Let us consider who, what, how, when, and where an individual obtains entrance to a University.  Also, let us examine as The Atlantic did, How America’s 2-Tiered Education System Is Perpetuating Inequality,

In the United States, more and more students turn to community colleges for an education.  Tuition costs are less, as are standards for admission.  Geographic proximity also makes a two-year degree more attractive.   Community colleges have been portals for the under-served.  The Administration understands this and encourages this entrance.  However, in recent years the rush to attend these institutions has waned.  

The explanations are many.  Most notably, the cost of attending college, even a community college soared. “Economists predict the cost of attending state colleges will soar to $120,000 by 2015. Currently over $40 billion in student loan debt has forced many former students into financial bondage or even bankruptcy.”  The increased cost is not correlated with inflation.

The most visible reason is tuition costs continues to rise.  Confluence and convenience became the reason. More than a score ago, we saw a dramatic change in the structure of student loans.  In 1992, the Federal Stafford Loan program was altered. “Uncle Sam opened the floodgates to government-backed student loans without parent income restrictions.”  Colleges rejoiced and met the news with open arms. The sudden injection of millions of additional aid dollars was seen as an opportunity to increase tuitions. The promotion of the Stafford Loan program as a low-costly option was a cause and an effect. The two together became the formula for hyperinflationary costs.  However, the tale of dollars and “sense” is but one chapter in an invisible and insidious reckoning.

The  April 2012 Center for Higher Education report reveals another daunting reality.  Author and Researcher Dr. Gary Rhodes analyzed the changing climate. Rhodes observed a “complicated cascade effect.” The exploding cost of a college education coupled with enrollment limitations at four-year institutions resulted in a complex paradigm shift.  Today, more middle and upper class students choose community colleges. At the same time, these institutions, like all others, receive less public funding. Classes are filled to capacity. The combination of these dynamics leave less room for low-income and minority students.  Were students from any socioeconomic standing to apply for enrollment in the more prestigious Universities, other realities might lock them out.

Accessibility.  Many universities have gone the way of online coursework, arguing, this method would break the barriers that divide the haves from the have-nots.  However, this move too magnified the gulf. For-profit education entrepreneurs and elite research universities maximized the potential for growth.  Personal gains were supplanted by capital gains.  The faculty at Amherst, in 2006, chose a different route.  The University decided to reserve the majority of its transfer slots for students coming from community college. In some ways, the choice represented potentially a more radical commitment to underprivileged students than online courses.

Amherst president emeritus Anthony Marx states when speaking about four year colleges, many have restrictive transfer policies that heavily weight factors like SAT scores. This standard coupled with a lack of funding for community colleges exacerbated the consequences. Transfer policies are extremely selective, the circumstances are even more dire.  Inequity increases. . The Century Foundation report found that while 81.4 percent of students enter community college plan to transfer and complete a four-year degree, just 11.6 percent are able to do so within six years.

Considering the small number who successfully transition, and that overwhelmingly community colleges serve low-income people and minorities, the higher education system remains two-tiered.  Scholars and notables have described the arrangement as “separate but equal.” “You basically cannot join the middle class without a postsecondary credential at this point,” said Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami-Dade College, America’s largest community college. And how do people obtain a post-secondary degree? Dependant on you socioeconomic status, easily or not so easily.

Community colleges which serve 44 percent of current college enrollees, are chronically underfunded, just as their students before and after enrollment are under-served. Most of the money that supports higher education flows to elite research universities, not to the community colleges or the state schools that educate large numbers of Americans.  The divide might be most evident in the value diverential.   The direct and indirect help Princeton receives, including tax breaks, is near $54,000 a year per student in federal subsidies. “The College of New Jersey, a public institution a mere 12 miles away, receives a total of about $1,600 a year per student in federal and state subsidies.”

You decide.  Did a Princeton graduate go it alone?  Did his or her success come at great expense, and to whom?  Was the communicty college student given an equal chance? Just out of curiosity, who makes up the 38 percent of American minorities Princeton purports to be in the  undergraduate student body and what about the sixty [60] percent who receive financial aid?  Why might it be that 23 percent of Princeton students take out loans and the average debt at graduation is $5,225 while the average college student graduates with about $28,000 in personal debt?  Is there a two-tiered education system and does it perpetuate inequality?  Watch out for your answers.  You too might be influenced by invisible and insidious biases.

References and Resources…

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