For many, getting a college education is the first step toward living the American Dream. You find a good-paying job, save up for a new home, maybe marriage and eventually retire when the time is right. If able, you endow the next generation with your accumulated wealth.
For most college-educated Blacks, however, achieving economic security post-graduation is no easy feat. In fact, a 2015 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis indicated Black Americans with college degrees have actually lost wealth over the past generation. Between 1992 and 2013, Black grads saw their wealth plunge a whopping 55 percent while college-educated whites enjoyed an 86 percent spike in theirs.
With such meaningful progress among African-Americans in everything from educational achievement, equal rights and political representation, it’s hard to understand why highly educated Blacks are having such a hard time attaining wealth compared to whites. A more recent report by the St. Louis Fed discusses this issue, highlighting why higher education isn’t a guaranteed fix for racial and ethnic wealth gaps.
“A structural-determinants framework suggests the vast majority of the Black-White … wealth gaps may lie beyond the scope of individual actions or marginal policy changes directed at educational attainment, family structure, financial decision-making or even wealth redistribution,” wrote authors William R. Emmons and Lowell R. Ricketts. “Instead, the gaps appear to be deeply rooted in unobservable factors that may include discrimination or other long-lasting disadvantages.”
Researchers found that differences in the way Blacks and whites financially prep for college greatly impact educational attainment. For one, college-educated Blacks are more likely to need student loans compared to whites, which tends to have disproportionately negative effects on building and maintaining wealth. As a result, the wealth gap increases.
Owning a home also plays an important role in securing wealth. While homeownership is more common among college-educated families, African-American mortgage borrowers are much more likely to experience foreclosures or delinquencies, according to the report. Moreover, college-educated whites are more likely to receive financial assistance from their parents when they’re strapped for cash compared to Black grads.
Finally, there’s the factor of historic and ongoing experiences of discrimination. To examine the impact of this on wealth attainment between Blacks and whites, the authors proposed a “structural” model recognizing that both groups have different shared experiences that often impact their opportunities to build wealth.
“Here, my colleagues William Emmons and Lowell Ricketts challenge the standard, but debatable, ‘post-racial’ economic model, under which the racial wealth gap exists because millions of white families made good financial choices while millions of similarly situated Black families did not,” Ray Boshara, senior adviser of the Center for Household Financial Stability at the St. Louis Fed, wrote in a piece for The Washington Post. “But the Black-white wealth gap is too large and persistent for equal opportunity and freedom of choice to be plausible.”
Boshara went on state that such stark racial wealth gaps are clear indications that America is far from being a post-racial society. To begin fixing the problem, he argued that financing college education with more grants, not loans, might be a plausible option. Homeownership reforms that foster economic resilience and more equitable financing could stand to narrow the earnings gap as well.
Lastly, the finance expert pointed to improving pre-college environments and even implementing “baby bonds” or wealth endowments at birth for low-income families.
“A college education is increasingly important for middle-class success and beyond, though the journey appears more difficult for some groups than for others,” Boshara concluded.
“Let’s hope our nation is watching, listening and responding so that college leads to financial success for all Americans.”