My parents are turning 75 years old this year, and they were both the first in their families to graduate from college. They matriculated through higher education institutions in the era of affirmative action, in the 1960s, when the government began mandating that projects financed with federal funds “take affirmative action” to ensure that hiring and employment [and eventually admissions] practices are free of racial bias.
I’ve been thinking about their experiences, and my own, as last week’s Supreme Court decision put an end to considering the race of students in a matrix of characteristics when making admission selections. With affirmative action restricted, we are likely to witness a widening gap of income, wealth, and higher education attainment between families of color and white families in America.
Research from the Urban Institute suggests that the amount of wealth a family has access to is greatly expanded by the income potential higher education offers to those who have a degree compared to those who do not. “Family wealth is strongly associated with both higher educational attainment and upward educational mobility, suggesting that family wealth is an important factor in promoting greater educational achievement…The fact that children from low-wealth families are less likely to go to college has implications for long-run wealth inequality. Wealth inequality, which has grown in recent decades,will persist in subsequent generations as higher educational credentials are a key ingredient for upward economic mobility (Haveman and Smeeding 2006).”
I wonder what kind of life my parents would have had without a college education? Would my mother have continued working on a farm? Would my father have taken up a trade? Would my brother and I have gone to college and obtained advanced degrees? I am grateful to – Dillard University, Xavier University of Louisiana and Spelman College – these were the historically black institutions that have offered my parents, my brother and I an opportunity to exceed the paths of our history in this country. Higher education – and access to it – matters!