A Degree Doesn’t Buy Privilege for Black Graduates
Amie Jean had once hoped her college identity would keep her safe from police violence.
“I used to think that if I get pulled over, the officer will see the Longhorns sticker on the back of my car,” said Jean, who graduated in May from the University of Texas in Austin. “Now I know that it doesn’t make a difference.”
College is no guarantee of privilege. Two of her brothers, both college graduates, have experienced mistreatment at the hands of law enforcement. Even if it did not protect her from racial profiling, a UT finance degree once seemed to Jean like a path to good jobs. It’s not happening.
“I get replies from recruiters that positions have either already been filled or canceled,” the 22-year-old Houston native said, citing hiring freezes during the pandemic. She planned to move out of her parents’ house by next year but has had to rethink post-college life.
This spring, black college graduates are leaving school for an environment unlike any other in history. They might have been braced for the joblessness, underemployment and student debt that their demographic has long faced, but they weren’t expecting to enter the job market in the middle of a public health crisis and nationwide unrest over police brutality and racial violence.
Demonstrations under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” have followed the death of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, at the hands of police last month. As pandemic lockdowns have eased in some parts of the U.S. and become stricter in others, the largely peaceful protests have in some cities been accompanied by destructive riots and looting, all feeding into a sense of chaos and uncertainty.
Local economies that seemed to be on a path to reopening and recovery are now in limbo as officials and employers fear escalation. Unemployment is at levels unseen since the Great Depression, and although the overall rate fell slightly in May, thejobless rate for black Americans rose last month.
The U.S. economy’s slide can’t be good news for any new grads. However, African American college students appear to be more worried about the job market than their peers of other races are.
In January, before Covid-19 had spread across the U.S., a Sallie Mae survey of graduating students found 73% of black respondents were confident they would find a job after completing their education, compared with 67% of white respondents. A follow-up survey in April, after lockdowns spurred by the virus had begun nationwide, found confidence had fallen to 68% for black respondents, while white respondents’ expectations remained about the same.
“It’ll affect black people more, no matter where they went to school,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of the historically black Dillard University, referring to the fallout from the virus.
There were plenty of reasons for black graduates to be worried about employment even before the pandemic and the latest eruption of racial tension.
In September, the jobless rate for black workers with a college degree was 3.1%, higher than that for white workers of all educational levels, at 2.2%, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Among black college graduates who found work, almost 40% were in jobs that typically wouldn’t require a college degree. The median income for black college graduates was $36,000, compared with $40,000 for their white counterparts.
“We always believe education is the answer; oftentimes it’s not,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Degrees on average boost black workers’ wages, he said, but not enough to catch up to their white peers.
“Even if African Americans do everything right and get a bachelor’s, odds are they won’t do as well as the white middle class,” Carnevale added. “We’ve made some progress, but the current crisis will exacerbate those differences.”
Student debt has already aggravated racial disparities. Within six years of starting college, 32% of African American borrowers who had entered repayment defaulted on their loans, compared with just 13 percent of their white peers, according to the Center for American Progress, a think tank.
Abdoulaye Makanera, a 25-year-old from the Bronx in New York City, graduated last month from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, after transferring from Hostos Community College. He credits his success in part to the low cost of those schools. With the help of financial aid, he says, he ended up paying no more than $2,000 out of pocket for the degree.
African Americans typically have the lowest college completion rates of all races. Only 40% of black male students complete their degree within six years.
Makanera’s journey took eight. “Everyone has different things going on,” he said. “Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”
He does not yet have a job lined up but plans to apply to be an officer with either the New York City police or the state police. Even before the latest clashes with protesters, Makanera hoped to bridge a troubling divide: “I want to help police see that people in low-income neighborhoods aren’t bad, and for people in those neighborhoods to know that there are cops out there just trying to do their job and return safely to their families.”
One further factor in the economic disparity between college graduates is that African Americans are far more likely than whites to have attended a for-profit institution rather than a four-year public college, according to CJ Libassi, a research analyst at the College Board. Given data that suggests for-profit schools offer meager earnings gains, receiving a degree from one might leave students worse off financially than not attending college at all, he said.
Historically black colleges and universities — founded in the century before school desegregation to educate African Americans and which now serve 293,000 students — have offered an escape from that self-defeating path. A study of 59 HBCUs by economist Gregory Price found that 10 years after graduation, attendees hadgone on to earn more than their peers at other institutions with sizable black populations.
But HBCUs can’t serve the same role when campuses are closed by a pandemic. Kimbrough, the Dillard president, said that when the school shifted classes online in March and sent students home, many returned to homes without broadband internet access for remote learning. Their educations and lives were derailed more than affluent students’ were. Now, many communities are also facing unrest and uncertainty because of protests and countermeasures like curfews.
“A good number of our students come from unstable homes,” Kimbrough said. “Here at Dillard they know they’ll be safe and get three square meals a day.”
— With assistance by Janet Lorin
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