My Granny told me all the time “once you get an education, they can never take it away from you.”

Like many kids, I didn’t listen. Yes, I knew education was important in some abstract way, and it was clear that professional people I saw in person and on television were living much better lives than we were, but it wasn’t until years later – after being stuck in service industry work too long – that the value of that paper made real sense to me.

Fast forward, today, I encounter far too many intelligent people who question the worth of a college education. It’s fashionable for some to say a college degree is no guarantee that black folks will prosper. They point out the fact that college educated African Americans often make less than white folks with high school diplomas.

While good old fashion racism in the workplace is still an issue, there may be another explanation to the white-black post-college pay gap.

A story on suggests we should be guiding young people to choose college programs that result in degrees with higher economic value. As it is now, African Americans go to college in high numbers for degrees in occupations that have high social value, but don’t pay well.

Drawing on new research from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, PBS says too few blacks are graduating college with degrees in the fields with the highest median earnings:

African-Americans make up only a small percentage of some of the highest-paying of majors, including those in STEM and business. They’re only 8 percent of engineering, 7 percent of mathematics and 5 percent of computer science majors. Worse, Carnevale said even those who do major in high-paying fields, typically choose the lowest paying major within them. For example, the majority of black women in STEM typically study biology, the lowest-paying of the science discipline. Among engineers, most black men study civil engineering, the lowest-paying in that sector.

African-American college students tend to have majors in public service which are also some of the country's lowest-paying.

In contrast, black college students are over-represented in service-oriented fields: humanities, education and social work (shown in the chart below). One of the lowest-paying majors common among African-Americans with a bachelor’s degree is early childhood education and the median earnings is only $38,000 annually compared to $65,000 for computer science (the lowest among high-paying majors for African-Americans). Carnivale says this is largely because American society overall “does not value service-oriented occupations.”


Given the enormous social struggles of marginalized communities, and the legacy of educated people of color returning from college to lead in their communities, it makes sense that African American college students would be drawn to service-oriented majors.

Along those lines, the PBS story says “12 percent of the population, African-Americans are 20 percent of all community organizers.”

That’s a good thing, but we won’t have a community to organize if we have no representation in the leading fields of study.

Consider this:

Over time, low-paying majors affect economic prosperity. There’s a $4 million difference in earnings between a four-year degree in early childhood education and petroleum engineering over an entire career. Black students end up with less savings and disposable income paying for educations that landed them low-paying jobs in the first place. It stifles the African-American middle class and contributes to the country’s economic inequality.

That says to me my grandmother’s advice needs updating. We need to be more specific than just “get an education.” We need our next generation to know that the typical white family has 16 times the wealth of a black one. A part of that problem is the legacy of historic discrimination and the compounding interest on white privilege. But, part of it too is the return on investments in college majors that pay.

To address that we should be preparing more of our students to attend four-year colleges, and not ones that are open enrollment with low resources and limited educational programs.

Once we have that, no one can take it away from us.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.



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