Posted on October 22, 2020

What Happens Before College Matters

Madeline St. Amour, Inside Higher Ed, October 20, 2020

Higher education is not the root of all equity gaps. But it can be a vehicle to lessen those gaps.

Historically, it has not been. Equity gaps between students based on their race, ethnicity and income persist and thrive at most institutions.

For Black students, simply accessing higher education remains difficult, particularly at four-year colleges. At some institutions, including public flagship and research universities, access has worsened for Black students in recent years.

Until real progress is made on this issue, among others, higher ed leaders’ calls for diversity and inclusion, public statements on societal racism, and decisions to change building names or remove statues with racist legacies will continue to ring hollow.


“As soon as you start measuring differences in any outcomes for Black and white kids, you would find differences, you would find gaps,” said Emma García, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

These “opportunity gaps” can be found when comparing any nonwhite, non-Asian American student with their white or Asian American peers, García said. They can also be found when comparing different socioeconomic classes.


“We have a racial caste system in the United States,” said Leila Morsy, an academic lead of teaching and learning in the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University in Australia.

Because of this structure, Black children are far more likely to encounter adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs. Research has shown that adults with several ACEs are more likely to face mental and physical health issues later in life than their peers with fewer or no ACEs.

These experiences include any frightening or threatening experiences, such as losing a home to a fire, losing a parent, witnessing violence or having a parent who is incarcerated, Morsy said.


Research has shown that low-income and Black children were more likely to have more adverse experiences than their white and more affluent peers by kindergarten.

Racial discrimination and housing segregation are just two factors that bake in the chances that Black children will experience ACEs early on. {snip}


The inequities and structural hurdles in society start early on for many Black children, and they continue throughout life.

In the K-12 system, various forces set up challenges for nonwhite students.

“Education itself has been a very, very violent place for Black students,” said Damien Sojoyner, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

Black students are held back through various “enclosures,” which Sojoyner describes as ways to corral Black freedom, especially if those freedoms run counter to state desires.

Examples within education include cultural enclosures. The increase in testing in K-12 helps make the case for removing subjects like art from the curriculum.

“Many of the Black schools were once havens for Black cultural expression,” Sojoyner said. From the 1940s to the 1980s, many Black artists were fostered in that setting.

“Increasingly, as standards are set, Black culture is not part of the standard,” he said. “If you understand that Black schools were also sites of rebellion and resistance and these cultural formations were integral to making that happen, then you understand why this happens.”

Another example is the carceral enclosure. Majority-Black high schools were policed before prisons were expanded in California, Sojoyner said. So in this case, what happened in education informed steps taken by the state.

Kevin Clay, an assistant professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University, believes Black communities need to reclaim their K-12 schools.

“School has become just a place where students are conferred credentials,” he said, but that doesn’t protect Black students from societal inequities or teach them about why they exist.

“Black kids in poor schools have very little understanding of the history of social policy positions that have led to Black poverty,” Clay said. “You see Black youth who typically blame themselves and blame their communities. They think about poverty as this one-to-one effect of hard work.”

In his research, Clay has seen many Black students blame themselves if they realize they were underprepared for college, and that can contribute to mental health issues.

If students learned more history of how society fosters inequities, like the history of redlining or suburbanization, among other things, it could lift some of the burden off their shoulders, Clay said.

“We have to stop talking about poverty as an isolated individual trait,” he said. “We have to talk about class as a position from which we can collectively struggle.”

Sojoyner disagrees. Many Black youth understand how the world works against them, he said.


“Blackness cannot be in the same space with Western modes of being, unless it is in the hierarchal position of being subservient,” he said.

What happens in K-12 can color a student’s perspective of education for the rest of their lives. Priscilla Mayowa, a dual-enrollment student at North Hennepin Community College and Bemidji State University in Minnesota, expects to not feel welcomed in educational environments in this country.

Mayowa moved to the United States from Nigeria for high school. She said she experienced many microaggressions from her teachers because she is Black and an immigrant. She feels that her teachers in high school, and now also in college, assume she doesn’t know things. They also judge her for mistakes more harshly than they do her white peers, she said.


“Sometimes I don’t turn in work early because I’m scared that my teacher will judge me for it,” she said, adding that she would sometimes rather not turn in anything at all because at least her teachers expect that.

College advisers also tried to push Mayowa to study nursing, a program that enrolls many Black women, she said, which delayed her progress. She wants to go to law school, so she has been studying accounting.


By now, Mayowa is “used to the fact that this country is racist.”


It’s important to not look at all of this purely from a deficit perspective, said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization focused on closing opportunity gaps.

“People can draw strength from what they’ve been through and their ability to overcome it,” Jones said. This knowledge has led many students toward activism, but it’s time for higher education to stop relying on that free labor and start making real changes, she said.

Jones and other experts said it’s important to note the effects that racism have on white students as well. While racism isn’t targeted at them, white students often learn in college that much of what they had been taught earlier in life and had taken for granted as truth was not accurate.

“The only emotional breakdowns I ever saw in college were from white people responding to conversations about race,” she said. “Their whole paradigms were being disrupted, and it was traumatizing for them.”


Higher education can’t solve racism and societal inequity on its own. But the industry can take steps to be part of the solution.

It could advocate for more support for early childhood and K-12 programs like Head Start, which have been proven to help equity gaps, Morsy said.

Colleges also can better train the teachers who shape students’ minds in K-12.


College admissions tests are also barriers to a college education. Only about half of the nation’s high schools offer calculus and physics courses, which many colleges require students to complete, said C. J. Powell, a higher education program analyst at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a large coalition of civil and human rights groups that fights against discrimination.


Students need better counselors or access to a college prep pipeline so they can be aware of what they need to do to get into college and succeed, he said. High schools also must stop tracking certain students into courses that won’t prepare them for college. And they should stop tracking those students into remedial courses that could delay their graduation.

Once students are in college, institutions need to ensure faculty and leadership are diverse so students are more open to engaging with them, Powell said. They also need to recruit more Black students, perhaps by looking at more and different high schools in their recruiting. Diversity offices or leaders also need better resources so they can “put some teeth behind policies.”

Colleges also need to listen to their Black students.


Policy solutions include canceling student loan debt and doubling the federal Pell Grant, said Rosa García, director of postsecondary education and work development at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit that focuses on policy solutions for low-income people.

Colleges also need to center communities of color and social justice through their curriculums, García said. That can be done through strengthening African American studies departments and requiring all students to take a course on ethnic studies or racial justice.

This will also teach white students about racism and inequity, Jones said, so they can use their positions of power to create more change.

McGee was hesitant to bring up too many solutions. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of Black people to find the answers to this problem, she said.

“White people aren’t stupid. You got us into this mess — why is it our job to get us out?” she said. “Put your minds together and figure out how to make this world more equitable.”