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Race and College ROI

Today, Slate’s economic correspondent Jordan Weissman posted an article based on the annual Payscale.com ranking of colleges by their return on investment.  Instead of lauding the colleges that landed at the top of the list–mostly prestigious technical schools like MIT–Weissman took it upon himself to identify those schools that will leave their graduates poorest.  The ten worst ROI schools included:

For Weissman, the real take-away message about these schools is that, in his words, they “reinforce why we so desperately need high-quality consumer information about higher education,” noting that the higher education lobby has repeatedly blocked the Department of Education from tracking graduates’ careers to quantify their earning power.

To be fair, I don’t disagree with Weissman when it comes to that point.  I think schools work very hard to distract prospective students from the realities of the cold hard cash they’re going to spend on their education by promoting the myth of “fit” — the notion that when high school seniors visit a campus they will have some kind of magical gut feeling that the school is right for them, a kind of institutional love-at-first-sight.  Who cares if you’re getting a degree in English lit from a university that costs $60,000 per year when you’ll be lucky to nab a starting salary of $36,000 as a high school teacher?  It was just the right fit for you!

As I perused the list of collegiate offenders, however, I couldn’t help but notice that the four worst ROI schools are HBCUs.  Weissman omits this crucial bit of information from his analysis–either because he didn’t recognize the schools as HBCUs or because he thought it was irrelevant to his larger point.  But adding race into the mix of college ROI makes for a much more complicated lesson about higher education and earnings than just ‘students need to know what they’re getting themselves into.’

For one thing, that HBCU graduates in particular are making less over the course of their lives suggests not that the colleges themselves are bad investments but that African Americans continue to suffer from reduced earning power, which cannot contend with rising college costs.  According to this 2012 report from the NAACP African American men earn 72% of what white men earn, and African American women earn 85% of what white women earn (which is, of course, about 80% of what white men make).  While African Americans continue to deal with a lifetime disparity in earnings, their ratio of college debt to income is certainly going to be worse than white students’.  Chalking that ratio up to a ‘bad investment’ is not telling the whole story, to put it mildly.

A second factor to consider is how the ever-privatizing climate of higher education is taking its toll on HBCUs.  Rob Schofield over at NC Policy Watch recently noted that North Carolina Republican governor Pat McCrory, unrelenting in his quest to erase decades’ worth of legislation that made North Carolina arguably the most progressive state in the South, has introduced massive cuts to higher education that have had particularly harsh consequences for HBCUs (while, ironically, serving as the State Honorary Chair of the United Negro College Fund).  When state governments slash funding for higher education, reducing scholarships, financial aid, and the money that pays professors and keeps the lights on, already critically underfunded HBCUs suffer even more.  Their only recourse is to raise tuition, further inflating that debt-to-income ratio for students.

My larger point here is that when we talk about higher education and earning power, we can’t just pass along the blame to students for choosing universities whose tuition exceeds their future earning power.  The problem is not just that some schools are bad investments and students need access to better information about them.  The problem is that the current trend of massive public disinvestment in higher education only serves to further entrench inequalities of race, class, and gender — and that’s a bad investment in our nation’s future.

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