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Racial Lines Still Divide US Higher Education

Brooklyn College humanities and social sciences graduate Ameera Badamasi, center, from Nigeria, hugs a student after the college's commencement ceremony, where Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivered the keynote address, May 30, 2017.
Brooklyn College humanities and social sciences graduate Ameera Badamasi, center, from Nigeria, hugs a student after the college's commencement ceremony, where Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivered the keynote address, May 30, 2017.

Higher education continues to see racial divides, including in the earning power of graduates of different races and ethnicities.

When researchers looked at the earnings of white, black and Latino Americans who had earned a bachelor’s degree between 1991 and 2016, they saw that whites earned about $10,000 more a year than blacks and Latinos with the same education.

And in 2016, white college graduates held 77% of the good-paying jobs. These men and women represented 69% of available job holders nationwide.

However, over the same period, blacks and Latinos with a bachelor’s degree increased their likelihood of getting and keeping a good-paying job, defined by researchers as an annual salary of at least $35,000.

Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, describes these findings as another example of America’s history of treating minorities unequally. The center published its study in October 2019 about racial divides.

Carnavale said black Americans have been disadvantaged since they arrived in North America enslaved. Laws separated them practically, economically and in education. Many were barred from schools and fields of employment. While conditions for black Americans have improved over the years, Carnavale said whites have gotten greater advantages.

History of racial divide

Following World War II, many whites moved from major U.S. cities to suburbs, made possible because of government housing and mortgage aid in return for their military service. The majority white suburban communities built large tax bases, which financed strong public school systems, he said. From those schools, most students went on to colleges and universities.

Latinos, Carnavale said, faced similar discrimination and did not become a major part of the U.S. economy until the late 1980s. Higher education has reduced barriers to higher education for minorities. But access to elite schools has been elusive for those black, Latino and poor students who mostly attend two and four-year public colleges and universities.

Since the 1980s, state governments have given far less financial support to these public schools, noted Carnavale, meaning many of the schools struggle to support students as best they can.

“So, we’ve created more access to higher education in America, but we have not created much more success,” he said. “The success, the graduation rates are highest, by far, for affluent white kids.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 65 years ago that states could not prevent black students from attending the same schools as whites, a New Jersey judge agreed to consider a court case against the state’s public school system this year, said Victor Goode, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.

The NAACP and other groups have accused the state of segregation based on race and earnings. The civil rights group has taken legal action to demand greater financial support for public schools from state governments in Maryland, Delaware and Minnesota.

“States … need to see how they can do a better job of providing an adequate, equitable education to all students,” noted Goode.

Kyriaki Topidi, a researcher with the European Center for Minority Issues, said inequality exists in many majority-white nations.

Topidi said that in Germany, many recent African and Middle Eastern immigrants lack access to high schools with advanced study programs. And studies showed that employers in Britain were 60% more likely to consider white candidates for employment than blacks or South Asians.

Topidi suggests one way to deal with this is by working with local governments to create anti-discrimination policies. Also, she said, leaders should try to get members of different races and economic levels to understand each other better through community-building events and training.

“This process should be based on the acceptance that people do not simply represent ‘ethnicities’ or ‘races,’ but rather are complex beings that also differ according to social status, interests, profession, beliefs,” she said.

Yet Carnavale said he is not hopeful that conditions for blacks and Latinos will improve in the United States any time soon. He says that unless wealthy white Americans are willing to spend much more in taxes to support public education, things will likely remain the same for the next 30 years.

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US campuses are battlegrounds in free speech debate

Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.
Students hold up a photo of University of Southern California 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum in protest to her canceled commencement speech on the campus of University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, April 18, 2024.

This week the University of Southern California canceled the graduation speech of its senior class valedictorian at a time when there is a growing debate over the limits of free speech on American college campuses.

USC’s Asna Tabas­sum, a Muslim biomedical engineer major, was selected from among 100 outstanding students to address the graduating class of 2024 this May. However, the school withdrew the invitation for her to speak at the graduation ceremony citing safety concerns.

Tabassum denounced the decision, which she attributed to her public support for Palestinian human rights. She said it is part of “a campaign of hate meant to silence my voice.”

Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.
Students carrying signs protest a canceled commencement speech by its 2024 valedictorian who has publicly supported Palestinians on the campus of University of Southern California, April 18, 2024.

The school maintains it is a safety issue, not about free speech. School officials say they received an alarming number of violent threats after selecting her as speaker.

USC is one of many American universities that have struggled with policies over free speech and campus protest since October’s Hamas terrorist attack on Israel and the continuing fighting in Gaza. After weeks or months of on-campus protests and rallies, schools have been taking more forceful action to punish protesters who administrators say have become disruptive.

On Thursday at Columbia University in New York, police arrested more than 100 students who had gathered on campus for pro-Palestinian protests. The school’s dean wrote that the protesters had been told several times that they were violating university policies and would be suspended. The students say they were exercising their free speech rights.

At Washington’s American University, protests in all campus buildings have been banned by the school’s president since January. Under the new policy, students may not hold rallies, engage in silent protests or place posters in any campus building.

Protests and safety

University students have a long history of engaging in political activism. From the Vietnam War to abortion rights, universities have played a key role in American political debates.

However, students now say that schools like AU with a long-standing protest culture are silencing protesters with new rules.

Arusa Islam, American University student body president-elect and current vice president, says the policies are preventing an open discussion about U.S. foreign policy.

“Indoor protesting was never a problem, it was never an issue before October 7th,” Islam said. “Students were allowed to put up posters in buildings and students were allowed to have a silent protest.”

“And now we don’t have that right anymore,” she added. “We have been silenced and it is affecting us greatly.”

American University’s president, Sylvia Burwell, says the school’s new policies are intended to ensure that protests do not disrupt university activity.

Burwell also referred to recent events on campus that “made Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome.” She added, antisemitism is abhorrent, wrong, and will not be tolerated at American University.

While administrators insist that they are making narrow restrictions in the interests of providing an education, critics say the policies have a far-reaching effect.

At Cornell University, where new rules took effect in January, Claire Ting, the executive vice president of the Cornell Student Assembly, said the policies have had an unsettling effect on campus.

“The campus climate at Cornell has been tense surrounding free speech in recent times,” Ting emailed VOA.

Ting said that both students and faculty feel the policy has had chilling effects on free expression.

“Students report facing arbitrary, escalating punishment for violating the policy, with the policy itself lacking clear outlines for the consequences of civil disobedience,” she added.

In its new policy Cornell warns students that disciplinary action may be taken if protests impede people or traffic, damage school property or interfere with the school’s operations in any way.

In its campus-wide notice explaining the new guidelines, the school wrote that the new policy would ensure that expressive activity is allowed but must remain nonviolent.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, has tracked free speech issues on American campuses.

FIRE and College Pulse have produced an annual survey, since 2022, ranking colleges based on their policies and what students say about the free speech climate on campus.

This year the group reported that “alarming” numbers of students say they self-censor or “find their administrations unclear” on free speech issues.

“College campuses have always been places where students have been unafraid to express themselves and with the recent Gaza conflict after the 10/7 attacks, it’s been very heated on both sides of this issue,” said Zach Greenberg, the senior program officer of FIRE.

Harvard ranked last in this year’s survey. FIRE said the school punished some professors and researchers over what they had said or written, and students reported a poor climate for free speech on campus.

The controversy came to Congress late last year, when Harvard’s president testified over complaints of widespread antisemitism.

Israel-Hamas War Brings Controversy to US Campuses  
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“I don’t think you’d find many students on campus right now that would say we are the model for flourishing free speech and ideas exchange in the country,” said J. Sellers Hill, president of Harvard’s school newspaper The Harvard Crimson.

“But I think you’ve really seen that be acknowledged by administrators and it seems to be something they are dedicated to taking on.”

As the head of The Harvard Crimson, Hill manages the paper’s 350 editors and 90 reporters, who’ve covered, in detail, the ongoing free speech/protests controversy and the resignation of former President Claudine Gay following her testimony to Congress.

“I think no one would dispute Harvard has work to do and progress to make,” Hill said. “I think it’s a tough sell, for me, that Harvard is uniquely in its own league in terms of intolerance of speech. That doesn’t square with what I have seen on our college campus or on other college campuses around the country. I think Harvard is held to a higher standard.”

Proposed settlement offered over financial aid allegations

FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.
FILE - The Yale University campus is in New Haven, Connecticut, on Dec. 4, 2023. A group of colleges and universities - including Yale - have agreed to settle allegations of deceptive deceptive financial aid tactics, according to a report published in The Hill.

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