Higher learning headed downward

By Michelle Chen Mar 31, 2009

The fiscal crisis besieging state budgets is stretching America’s bootstrap mentality to a breaking point. Most states have slashed funds for higher education, including the community colleges and public universities that provide a critical avenue for low-income youth of color to get on a career ladder. Some states with large public university systems, like California, Florida and New York, have jacked up in-state tuition rates to fill gaps, and others have eliminated faculty. At the same time, private colleges are moving away from “need blind” admissions and toward sub rosa class bias: schools looking more favorably at applicants who are affluent enough to go without financial aid. The economic climate may exact the heaviest toll on immigrant students and students of color. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, between 1994 and 2004, enrollment of students of color in member institutions grew by over 30 percent; Latino enrollment soared by nearly 45 percent. Yet many students of color still lag behind their white peers, as a smaller portion of Black and Latino students enroll in college within a year of graduating high school. Hoping to close the gap and lay the groundwork for a more rational immigration policy, activists are again pushing for the the DREAM Act, which would broaden educational access for undocumented immigrant students–and again meeting stiff political resistance. As traditional industries collapse, the consequences of public disinvestment in higher education are becoming desperately clear. Blue-collar manufacturing, long a bulwark for lower-skilled labor, is withering, while the number of people stuck working part-time jobs to scrape by is approaching nine million nationwide. A recent study by the Urban Institute found that race adds yet another tier of inequality in the low-skill workforce. Among newly hired workers without a college education, white workers earn higher wages on average than Black or Latino workers, and Blacks and Latinos are more likely than whites to be working entry-level jobs. Overall, a greater percentage of whites are working jobs in which a high school education is an important qualification. One of the worst casualties of the recession could be what’s left of the tattered American meritocracy. The losses will be borne by tomorrow’s workers—another generation brought up in an economy that siphons opportunity by color and class. Image: LAEastside.com