A look at the demographic indicators should motivate change in higher education (opinion)

Amid the current societal turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest related to racial inequities, one cannot help but wonder, “Will this be the moment that we address the multiple inequities associated with poverty and educational attainment?” These two phenomena have shone a spotlight on the depth and impact of these inequalities and may have provided the perfect storm that will jolt us out of complacency and into action.

In education, employment, income, health, housing, wealth and other measures of individual and social well-being, gaps between diverse and/or low-income members of our society and middle-to-upper-class majority members continue to persist. Present trends indicate that America is failing to make good on its promise of equal access to opportunity and prosperity for the “haves” and “have-nots.”

Diverse and/or low-income individuals’ economic and educational conditions are far from equal to the more socioeconomically well-off members of our society. Data indicate that people at the lower socioeconomic status (SES) have higher unemployment rates, are disproportionately represented in lower prestige jobs with lower wages and earn degrees in numbers that pale in comparison to their higher SES counterparts. The underutilization of diverse and low-income individuals continues to prevail in the labor market where the majority of new future jobs will require post-secondary education and training. Without systemic and sustained change, these individuals will be subject to the same future prospects offering little hope. This is especially problematic given our country’s demographic shifts towards a growing number of diverse individuals and the widening gap between the “have and have-nots.” These demographic trends indicate that our economy will be increasingly reliant on the contributions of diverse and/or low-income individuals.

It is necessary, if not for altruistic reasons, for our nation to prepare and utilize the human capital represented by these individuals to ensure the success of the nation. We cannot continue to ignore the realities and concerns of these significant population shifts in our country. Providing education and economic opportunities for diverse and/or low-income individuals is in the best interest of our country’s economic future.

Education is still a key component of our nation’s and individual economic success. A well-trained work force must be educated and highly skilled to compete in a global economy. Unfortunately, the limited educational attainment levels of diverse individuals and those living in poverty indicate that educational reforms are necessary in order for these individuals to be prepared for and to play key roles in our nation’s economic success. Setting access goals alone is inadequate, rather, higher educational institutions must also be committed to achieving a proportional level of graduates from diverse and/or low-income individuals.

The United States is faced with difficult problems, future challenges and great opportunity to change the condition of diverse and/or low-income individuals in our country. The future of these individuals will be counted on to ensure the success of our country. The inequalities and underrepresentation of diverse and low-income individuals in education, careers and earnings undermines the very foundation of our country. We have the opportunity to make permanent and sustained change turning our challenges into a more equitable and just system for all. We can make a difference in the socioeconomic trajectory of those individuals who have experienced less success.

But first, did you know:

Population trends (2000 to 2016):

  • The Hispanic population in 2016 was 58.6 million (a 64 percent increase from 2000).
  • The Black population was 40.6 million (an 18 percent increase since 2000).
  • The white population was 198 million (a 1 percent increase since 2000).
  • The Asian population was 18.3 million (a 74 percent increase since 2000).
  • The Pacific Islander population was .6 million (a 56 percent increase since 2000).
  • The American Indian population was 2.4 million (a 14 percent increase since 2000).

Children Under 18 Living in Poverty in the U.S. (2016):

  • 28 percent of Hispanics
  • 34 percent of Blacks
  • 11 percent of whites
  • 11 percent of Asians
  • 23 percent of Pacific Islanders
  • 34 percent of American Indians

High School Dropout Rates (2016):

  • 9.1 percent of Hispanics
  • 7 percent of Blacks
  • 4.5 percent of whites
  • 2 percent of Asians
  • 6.9 percent of Pacific Islanders
  • 11 percent of American Indians

High School Completion Rates (2016):

  • 89 percent of Hispanics
  • 92 percent of Blacks
  • 94 percent of whites
  • 97 percent of Asians
  • 84 percent of Pacific Islanders
  • 75 percent of American Indians

College Participation (2016):

  • 39 percent of Hispanics
  • 36 percent of Blacks
  • 42 percent of whites
  • 58 percent of Asians
  • 21 percent of Pacific Islanders
  • 19 percent of American Indians

Four-Year College Graduation Rates in Six Years (2010 cohort):

  • 30 percent of Hispanics
  • 18 percent of Blacks
  • 34 percent of whites
  • 48 percent of Asians
  • 25 percent of Pacific Islanders
  • 20 percent of American Indians

Adults Aged 25 or Older Who Completed a Bachelor’s or Higher Degree (2016):

  • 15 percent of Hispanics
  • 21 percent of Blacks
  • 35 percent of whites
  • 54 percent of Asians
  • 18 percent of Pacific Islanders
  • 15 percent of American Indians

(National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education; Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups; 2018)

So where do we start?

Throughout my career as an educator, I have observed many things firsthand that I believe are serious issues that call out for change. Although I do not pretend to have all the answers for many complex societal issues, I believe addressing the following is important to move forward.

We need larger investments in education from PreK-16. Presently, much of the burden for education falls on the backs of families, particularly for those seeking a college education. Many students and their families have accumulated a staggering amount of debt to make this dream come true.

Those who do not have the means opt out of the educational system after high school, seeing no good way to finance their education. We must deemphasize loans and support more grant funding for students. In addition, PreK-2 financing is often contingent on the wealth of the communities in which these students reside, creating an unequal educational experience. At an early age, many of our diverse and/or low-income students already show gaps in reading and mathematics. With low achievement documented by fourth grade on many state achievement tests, it makes it more challenging for these students to catch up and achieve educational success. Many of these students also suffer from food insecurity, homelessness and other issues that create challenges to their educational success. Large investments in education from PreK-16 will pay future dividends.

We need to invest in the infrastructure surrounding students and their families. Our constitution indicates “All men (women) are created equal” but that simply is not the case. Being born to a diverse and/or low-income family in the United States does not provide an equal socioeconomic experience. During our recent pandemic, many woke up for the first time to the difficulties families without means experience (lack of internet connectivity, physical space, funds for food, clothing and shelter, etc.). This is not just a recent phenomenon brought on by the pandemic but a prevailing situation for many. The experience of many diverse and low-income individuals is very different from the experience of those with means.

We must consider spending similar amounts to what is spent for high SES students to provide a foundation around all of our children. An early and sustained investment in PreK-16 will improve our educational attainment rates. It is better to invest in education rather than in prisons and welfare in order to facilitate individuals’ access to the mainstream of economic opportunity, thus breaking a cycle of poverty and despair. For example, many states are spending $30,000 to $70,000 per year per prisoner to maintain them in jail. Funding is significantly lower for PreK-16 students. We also know that the vast majority of prisoners do not have a high school education, which in our economy provides little promise for decent jobs.

Lastly, we know the incarceration rate is disproportionately high for diverse and low-income individuals in our society. Why not spend more on education, giving individuals the ability for a better life? I understand that despite these efforts there will still be a need for social programs for those who fall short of obtaining their goals. However, I strongly believe, given equitable opportunity, many bright, capable and hardworking diverse and low-income individuals will thrive. This is a win-win situation for our society and a fiscally smart approach.

We need better collaboration and partnerships to be developed throughout the educational pipeline PreK-16. In addition to getting our educational system working more closely together, we must also get local, state and federal agencies that serve our diverse and/or low-income students to collaborate more effectively. Utilizing funds with more of a team approach across sectors to address students and their family’s issues in a more holistic and coordinated fashion will serve us best. Education and social issues such as food insecurity, homelessness, healthcare, etc. need to be addressed together.

Our present practices and policies have reaped some success, but certainly not enough. Our challenges cannot be addressed in isolation, but in partnership. The silos that persist between various entities of our society entrusted to address our challenges must be turned into opportunities for collaboration and partnerships. Again, while I’m certainly lacking in all the answers to address very complicated issues, I am disappointed with the extent of progress we have made over the last five decades. More is needed to get us on the right track.

I believe we can do more and better. It starts with us rethinking our future direction. What do we continue doing that has worked; what do we stop doing that hasn’t worked; and what do we need to start doing with new ideas to address our issues? It is to everyone’s benefit to work together to give every individual an equal opportunity to succeed. I feel fortunate coming from a diverse and low-income family to have reaped the benefits of the American dream. My wish is for more individuals to have the same opportunity. The time is now to come together and fulfill the dreams of those with little hope.

 

Janelle B. Smith

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