How For-Profit Colleges Prey on African-American Ambition

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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.

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