Black Women Deserve Elite Educations Too

by Nina Daoud

As a 16 year old, first-generation college applicant who also happened to be first-generation American and the eldest of four siblings, the last thing I wanted to do was apply to colleges in faraway places in the middle of nowhere. In my eyes, institutions like Dartmouth, Middlebury, and Swarthmore reeked of privilege and unfamiliarity—and I wanted no part of it. I told my counselor I wanted to apply early decision to SUNY Buffalo, and that I had made my decision.

“I don’t know where any of those schools are. I want to go to a state school,” I responded to my college counselor as he suggested a list of schools for me to consider.

With a little bit of pushing and compromise, I added his suggestions to my list. I ultimately decided to attend Cornell University. As a Black woman, this changed my life forever. More importantly, it left an indelible impact on me and my community, one that I am positive would not have been possible with any of the schools I considered initially.

In the years since I completing my undergraduate work, I’ve focused my career on the postsecondary education outcomes of underrepresented students. Given the lasting impact that my own undergraduate education has had on me, I was eager to ensure that as many people as possible would have this same opportunity. Yet the message that many high school students and their parents get is that the most important thing is for students to enroll in college period. With far fewer messages around what it means once students actually arrive to a college campus, or what happens after, students—particularly those who are first-generation students—are blindly submitting applications. Further, many of these institutions are for-profit colleges and universities, where Black women disproportionately enroll.

As a higher education researcher and beneficiary of life-changing college counseling, I cringe when I hear things such as, It really doesn’t matter where you go to college. The argument that Americans should “forget Harvard and Stanford” as they consider where to continue their education just doesn’t do it for me. This advice misses a critical point: not every American citizen has the same background, opportunities, or experiences. The conversation around parents stressing over the admissions process assumes that parents know enough about the admissions process to find it stressful. Yet for many Black students, parents are not nearly as engaged as they should or could be in the application process. To have parents stressed out, more often than not, indicates that the families have adequate information about the importance of higher education.

The type of student highlighted in Frank Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, is most likely middle-class and white, someone who has a strong understanding of the importance of higher education. Research shows that underrepresented students are more likely to graduate from elite institutions than when they attend other institutions; thus, institutional choice does matter for this population, perhaps more than for the average American. Moreover, for low-income students whose families cannot contribute to college, these institutions are more affordable than their public counterparts, as they usually offer generous need-based financial aid packages, essentially eliminating the cost of attendance.

At a rate of 9.7%, Black women attend college at a higher rate compared to Black men, or individuals from Asian or Hispanic groups. Yet, racial and gender disparities have Black women with Bachelor’s degrees earning up to $10,000 less than White men with Associate’s degrees, and on average, making half of what a White man with a Bachelor’s degree would make. As research has shown that Black women are outpacing other groups in postsecondary degree attainment, Black women—now more than ever—can and should aspire to attend the best institutions that they can afford. This is particularly important given the racial and gender stratification of the job market, and the reality that higher ranked schools have better job placement rates.

While “Black women can’t educate their way to fair pay,” and the conversation should move away from comparing Black women to Black men, higher education is critical in addressing the post-graduation outcomes of Black women. This means continuing to pursue higher education, and paying particular attention to high-ranking, high-resource institutions at which Black students tend to perform at comparable rates to their White counterparts, a stark difference compared to other institutions.

As we’ve now entered the final weeks of the college acceptance season, I want us to recognize why we can’t “forget Harvard and Stanford.” It is clear that college-going advice permeating through the Internet for the “average” American college student does not consider the plight of Black students, and certainly not Black women. Many of the average college students for whom this advice is catered would be just fine without their college degrees. However, given the tendency for women to pursue service-oriented professions such as medicine and education, and the role that these careers have in uplifting communities, it is imperative that we continue to support women in their educational and career aspirations.

In the words of Michelle Obama, There is nothing more important than being serious about your education.” Let us use education to ensure that Black women’s dreams are no longer being deferred. We can’t afford to be complacent and listen to messages such as, “It doesn’t matter.” This does not apply to us.

It does matter, and it will continue to matter.

Photo: Shutterstock

Nina Daoud is a Ph.D. student studying higher education at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on college access and choice among communities of color as well as diversity within Black collegians. In between her research and travels throughout the African Diaspora, she can be found on Twitter @ninascia.

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