I’ve been brown all my life and poor for much of it. Growing up, I attended some schools that were better than others and many more that were worse than most. But my parents always reminded me to make the best of it because, as they often said, “education is the one thing no one can take away from you.”
So as far back as I can remember, going to college was my goal — just like it is today for the vast majority of Latino high schoolers. Our young people intuitively understand what the data show and what Latino parents have long known: adults who are college educated earn more, are physically healthier, and are in a better position to help their communities than those who are not.
Unfortunately, college aspirations are not enough — particularly if your skin happens to be dark and your bank account happens to be small. While college-going has increased during the last 30 years, enrollment among students of color still lags that of their white peers. Half of our low-income students now go to some kind of college, but that rate is still lower than the college-going rate among wealthier students… in the 1970s.
These inequities conspire against the very foundation of opportunity and fairness on which America was built. And with the strength of our economy and our democracy at stake, you’d think that all Americans would rally to improve our schools, make college more affordable, and nurture our young people’s college going aspirations.
Instead, an increasingly vociferous choir is trying to drown out the voices of parents and equity-minded officials by arguing that our country cannot and should not aspire to better educate all of our students. According to these contrarians, many students would be better off if America only prepared them for and encouraged them to pursue jobs that do not require a college degree.
Of course, these folks do not count their own kids among those who shouldn’t go to college. In their minds, only brown, black and poor students should forgo a postsecondary education. Why? Because according to them, these students lack the will, interest or motivation to succeed in college.
Now, this discourse does not surprise me. I’ve been around long enough to know that there are lots of people who don’t care much about inequity — people who rave about the merits of a meritocracy, but conveniently ignore the fact that we continue to cluster our most vulnerable kids in schools where we spend less, expect less and assign them to teachers who are the least prepared to help them soar academically.
What is surprising is the fact that these well-educated and affluent commentators do not realize that their own future economic prosperity depends on those they are now so quick to shortchange. Today nearly half of the students attending our K-12 schools come from low-income families and students of color are no longer the “minority.” So arguing that these students should be aiming for something lower than college is not only disturbing, it’s economically destructive.
We must raise our voices and stop the “college for some” mantra from taking hold. We must expand opportunity, not limit it. And we must avoid reaching the unconscionable point where, for the first time in our country’s history, our youngest generation is less educated than their parents — a point that research suggests we will reach soon unless we take decisive action.
Not every child will want to go to college. But every child, regardless of what they look like or where they come from, deserves to be prepared for all options. That way, when they have to make decisions about their own future, the choice is theirs, not someone else’s. Anything else is simply un-American.