To close the racial wealth gap, look beyond education and into our communities

Originally published by Philanthropy News Digest on February 22, 2023

If education is the key to economic mobility, why hasn’t it closed the racial wealth gap? For years, education has been hailed as the solution to closing the racial wealth gap, but it’s not a silver bullet.

The history of enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and the legacy of anti-Black housing and education policies across the United States make it harder for Black families to accumulate wealth at the same rates as their white counterparts. Today, the median wealth of white households is eight times the median wealth of Black households. In our nation’s capital, where I live, that number explodes to 81 times that of median Black household wealth. Closing this enormous racial wealth gap is a multidimensional, multigenerational problem that requires bold, sweeping solutions.

Make no mistake: Education is important. College graduates enjoy reliably higher incomes than those without degrees. But given that Black students typically come from families with less wealth to begin with, the cost of college is already prohibitively high and requires them to incur significant debt. This is the main reason why just 28 percent of Black American adults have a four-year degree or higher, compared with 42 percent of white Americans.

Until we address the issue of college affordability, degrees alone will not close the wealth gap. Black students typically borrow more to pay for college, are more likely to attend for-profit institutions, and face lower wages post-graduation than their white peers. These factors all contribute to the stark reality that Black college graduates don’t just have less wealth than white college graduates but also have less wealth than white high school dropouts.

Hundreds of years of government policy created these persistent disparities; fixing them requires sweeping policy reforms. Student loan relief, higher education reform, tax reform, baby bonds, and even reparations can and should be considered.

But while we wait on national reforms to be enacted in the current polarized political environment, we can take action today to improve the lives of young Black people. I’m talking about the power of mentorship.

In my work leading Spark the Journey, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a community of mentorship and support to help students achieve economic success, I’ve seen hundreds of young people make real strides to improve their economic outlook.

We understand that education is more than learning in formal settings. It includes acquiring knowledge and skills and learning when to apply them to promote success in all areas of life.

Those who grow up in well-off communities have access to such resources in abundance. They are exposed to professional networks and social capital that help them build even more wealth. But in this country, Black people are disproportionately likely to live in low-income communities and without the social connections that have been proven to predict economic mobility. That’s where mentorship comes in.

The right mentor can empower young people with the tools they need to succeed, whether their path to success involves higher education or not. I’m thinking of one mentor who took the time to go through every step of the financial aid application process with her mentee, a first-generation college student and helped her secure a Posse Foundation scholarship. Another mentor is introducing his mentee to connections in his mentee’s career field of choice so that his mentee can build a strong network as he begins applying for full-time positions.

The best mentors can provide guidance on navigating college admissions, financial aid, or life on campus. They can also offer career coaching and networking opportunities that are critical to landing a strong job–with or without a degree. Success or failure in any of these realms can define a person’s access to economic mobility for the rest of their life.

Without overhauling the policies that perpetuate the racial wealth gap, we can never hope to fully close it. But we can start taking steps today—in our own communities—toward progress.

Mentorship offers young Black people the chance to get the most out of education, career pathways, and life in general in a system that wasn’t designed to work for them. While we work on fixing the system, you can be a part of the solution by volunteering with a mentorship organization today. A few moments of your time can spark the change that alters a young person’s life forever.

Khari Brown is president and CEO of Spark the Journey (formerly Capital Partners for Education). Spark the Journey provides mentorship and a community of support for young adults in the Washington, D.C. area–to chart their own path to achieving college and career success.