When I think about the role of higher education and wealth building for college graduates from a working-class background, I can’t help but think that the wealth building as a relay race. A relay race is no doubt a team effort that not only requires speed to win but a successful baton exchange. I am afraid that when it comes to college graduates from a poor and working-class background, we think that higher education is so powerful that it enables one to sprint to wealth. Now, by sprint, my focus isn't on speed but a race where winning is incumbent on the individual athlete, not the team.
To help you understand what I mean by wealth building as a relay race rather than a sprint, allow me to tell you about two talented young men from Houston’s Sunnyside community, a historically African American community where the median household income is $28, 817. As you will see, they are both interested in the arts.
Please keep in mind, these young men's stories aren’t unique because of their interests in the arts. Their stories represent the masses of black and brown college students seeking to improve their quality of life.
Working Class College Student A
College student A has musical talent and is currently pursuing Jazz Studies at an excellent liberal arts college in New York where the tuition is more than $60,000 per year. This school was on his list of colleges among other equally impressive colleges but selected because of the stellar faculty in the Jazz Studies department. This young man has musical talent and dreams of being a music producer and wants to be the best.
But he faced a problem: A remaining balance of $30,000. Eventually, the college awarded additional scholarships, but it was still not enough to cover the remaining balance. How was this talented young man able to attend this excellent liberal arts college? You guessed right; his mother had to take out loans to cover the remaining balance.
While he had a remarkable freshman year, the cycle continues More loans to continue his education.
Working Class College Student B
College Student B is currently attending Houston Community College after transferring from a 4-year public university, also known as reverse transferring. This young man is a talented abstract artist who too wanted to be taught by the best.
Like Student A, he needed more funding to attend his dream college even after qualifying for the maximum amount of Pell Grants and federal loans. Unlike Student A, his mother could not take out additional loans because she wasn’t deemed creditworthy. The financial aid administrator received authorization from the Department of Education to award him additional federal loans.
About a year later I followed up with his mother to check his progress, and she informed me that he transferred to Houston Community College. She plans to improve her credit so she can qualify for additional loans so he would be able to go back to the 4-year public university.
What is the lesson that these two talented and capable young black men’s story ought to teach us about higher education and wealth building? When we consider the average starting salary (just over $50,000) and the college debt of a college graduate, it teaches us that it is unlikely that college graduates from a working-class background will be able to build a substantial amount of wealth in their lifetime.
Several factors compound the problem of wealth building for said group, but one element is the role educational attainment plays in shaping their taste and preferences. For instance, a student from a low-income household who grew up in the hood does not have the desire to move back to the hood with their parents and siblings, grandparents, and other relatives. Low-income college graduates once they secure employment are more likely to spend money on housing on top of college debt. After taxes, housing, transportation, and college debt, there’s nothing left.
For college graduates from a background that matches their tastes and preferences, moving home to save up is a viable and preferred option. I am reminded of a friend who moved back home with his parents in Katy, TX after graduating from law school and securing a job at a top law firm in Houston. He continued living with his parents for about two years. It wasn't because he didn't know how to live in the real world or needed to develop life skills, his mindset, and his parents' mindset was wealth building.
Unfortunately, for college graduates from the hood, moving home is not a preferred option. For the masses of college graduates, higher education not the key to wealth building.
For African American’s living in a capitalist system, I think we should start considering Du Bois’s view of education, which is that the responsibility of African American higher education is not the creation of wealth but the cultivation and preservation of African American culture. When higher education becomes a tool to develop human souls and create beauty, the next generation will be better positioned to secure the bag.
- Jarvis Taylor, Founder of Project College Counseling