Quora Question: Why Should People of Color Go to College?

A graduate cries during a prayer at Howard University's 2014 graduation ceremonies in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Answer from Vielka Hoy, founder and director at Vielka Hoy Consulting:

There are a number of reasons why students of color should go to college, and to be honest, few of those reasons have to do with getting a job.

Before I get into that though, I think it's important to recognize that in many circles, we (as people who identify as people of color) don't think students of color should go to college. Often times there is pressure to support the family, and earning a vocational/technical degree meets that need way sooner than a pathway to a career would. We also have concerns about losing one's identity or culture, even in schools that have larger ethnic diversity, as in an HBCU, or schools that are more known for a commitment to diversity, such as UC Berkeley. There is also a lack of awareness around what course of study would lead to a viable career. Without various people modeling what that degree in communications, for example, will get you, it is hard to make the argument that going to school is worth it.

In short, college is seen as something for those people who did things that are completely unfamiliar, and have the money to waste time.

As a college counselor, it may seem as though I don't understand that argument but I actually see it. College is really expensive and most of the time we need students to earn advanced degrees in order to get high-paying jobs. This study shows the pay gap between a high school diploma and bachelor's degree is $17,500. When college costs way more than that gap, there has to be a larger commitment to school than just earning potential, especially when one could earn way more doing questionable, unethical and sometimes illegal things.

So why should students of color go to college? Here are a few reasons:

  1. You may not see the value, but other people do. When I'm around my friends and family, no one is asking where or if I went to college. Everyone else asks though. And a lot of people who fall under "everyone else" have turned into business advisors and partners, employers, colleagues or people I share ideas with. I think part of that sucks—we shouldn't have to prove ourselves in that way. But it's a reality. And if we are to create a new system, it is much easier to do it within the structure than outside of it. When I was a GSI at UC Berkeley, I had a student who kept missing class. When I finally talked to her, she said it was because she always had a march or demonstration to attend during class time (she is slightly exaggerating the amount of activism on campus, by the way). I said it would be a shame if she dropped out of such a prestigious university because the revolution was starting at the same time. I reminded her that once the demonstrations are over, someone has to go to the courtrooms, classrooms and city halls. And that wouldn't be her without her degree.
  2. Consider the value of college knowledge. I am not sure of the exact number, but it is something like the decisions we make now impact our descendants for the next seven generations. We easily see that with our incomes, and college has an impact on that. But take the example I gave earlier about modeling—the more we normalize college as a viable route, the larger positive impact we have on our family and community, rather than the questionable, unethical and sometimes illegal things. I once worked with a student who, between his parents and step-parents, had nine degrees being modeled around him. I joked, "I guess you won't be taking time off to discover your true self at Burning Man after high school, will you?" Nope, not him. I think about normalizing with my son. He is seven and has been on every college visit I have ever taken a client on. A good chunk of his toys are from colleges and he wears college t-shirts and sweatshirts most days. I even explained to him why the Stanford stuffed animal had to sit below the Berkeley one. It's all just normalizing the experience for him and therefore generations after him.
  3. Price and culture can easily be addressed. Part of that college knowledge is knowing that there are ways around the price, and ways around the concerns regarding losing culture. The ways we navigate around those are far more helpful especially in our long-term use of soft skills than anything we can learn anywhere. We know that in many instances, no one pays the sticker price. Sometimes that means doing more work on the front end, but it's worth it, and that tenacity and resilience are critical skills that will carry one through life. Same goes for creating culture. I believe when choosing a school, this is as important as finding financial fit. But students can be proactive in how they create community around them: What clubs already exist? What can you create? Are there designated dorms that prioritize culture? How far away from home will you be? The friends I made in the dorms and on the track team continue to be part of my community today even though we don't live near each other.

Finally while I think many of these reasons apply to other communities, I believe there is a larger imperative for students of color to at least be more intentional about how we pursue higher education. And that starts by asking this question as often and as early as possible.

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