This essay was originally published at Salon.com on June 9, 2013.
There are a few dictums that have enjoyed pride of place in black American families alongside “Honor your parents” and “Do unto others” since at least Emancipation. One of them is this: The road to freedom passes through the schoolhouse doors.
After all, it was illegal even to teach an enslaved person to read in many states; under Jim Crow, literacy tests were used for decades to deny black voters their rights. So no surprise that from Reconstruction to the first black president, the consensus has been clear. The key to “winning the future,” in one of President Obama’s favorite phrases, is to get educated. “There is no surer path to success in the middle class than a good education,” the president declared in his much-discussed speech on the roots of gun violence in black Chicago.
Rarely has that message resounded so much as now, with nearly one in seven black workers still jobless. Those who’ve found work have moved out of the manufacturing and public sectors, where good jobs were once available without a higher ed degree, and into the low-wage service sector, to which the uncredentialed are now relegated. So while it has become fashionable lately to speculate about middle-class kids abandoning elite colleges for adventures in entrepreneurship, an entirely different trend has been unfolding in black America — people are going back to school in droves.
It’s true at all levels of education. Yes, black college enrollment shot up by nearly 35 percent between 2003 and 2009, nearly twice the rate at which white enrollment increased. But we’re getting all manner of schooling as we seek either an advantage in or refuge from the collapsed job market. As I’ve reported on the twin housing and unemployment crises in black neighborhoods in recent years, I’ve heard the same refrain from struggling strivers up and down the educational ladder: “I’m getting my papers, maybe that’ll help.” GEDs, associates degrees, trade licenses, certifications, you name it, we’re getting it. Hell, I even went and got certified in selling wine; journalism’s a shrinking trade, after all.
But this headlong rush of black Americans to get schooled has also led too many down a depressingly familiar path. As with the mortgage market of the pre-crash era, those who are just entering in the higher ed game have found themselves ripe for the con man’s picking. They’ve landed, disproportionately, at for-profit schools, rather than at far less expensive public community colleges, or at public universities. And that means they’ve found themselves loaded with unimaginable debt, with little to show for it, while a small group of financial players have made a great deal of easy money. Sound familiar? Two points if you hear troublesome echoes of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Between 2004 and 2010, black enrollment in for-profit bachelor’s programs grew by a whopping 264 percent, compared to a 24 percent increase in black enrollment in public four-year programs. The two top producers of black baccalaureates in the class of 2011 were University of Phoenix and Ashford University, both for-profits.
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