We Can’t Educate Our Way to Racial Economic Equity: Michael Collins

Last month, Senate Democrats released a $3.5 billion budget package that they hope to pass alongside a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill later this summer. Advocates for educational equity applauded the specter of free community college and a long-overdue expansion of the Pell program that has, for decades, formed the cornerstone of college access for Black students. The inclusion of training dollars in the infrastructure legislation is key to making good on the bill’s economic — and equity — intent.

With good reason: Employment rates and wages increase among Black workers along with level of educational attainment. Black workers with some college or an associate’s degree are more likely to secure a good job than are those with no education beyond high school.

But even with education and training, Black workers earn less than White workers across nearly all education levels. In fact, White workers with a high school diploma earn more than Black workers with an associate’s degree. And despite recent increases in educational attainment for Black Americans, the Black unemployment rate has been twice as high as White unemployment for the past 50 years across nearly all levels of education.

Those data do not mean that postsecondary education is not still one of our nation’s most powerful levers for economic advancement. But they suggest that Black educational attainment, long characterized as the “great equalizer,” does not and cannot set Black Americans on equal economic footing.

So if we can’t educate and train our way to racial economic equity, what can we do to promote Black economic advancement and take aim at the racial wealth gap?

First, we must acknowledge that, for all their virtues, the U.S. postsecondary education and workforce training systems play a role in exacerbating occupational segregation.