How Race Affects Low Income Students in the Academic Middle

March 24, 2021

This is the third of a 4-part blog series focused on the interconnected elements that impact students who fall within the academic middle of their peers.

The “academic middle,” or students whose GPA ranges from 2.3 to 3.1, face deep and interconnected challenges to reaching their full potential. These students are on the cusp of college but are not quite there. They are ineligible for the support given to low-achieving students but also lack the opportunities offered to high-achievers which inevitably puts them at risk of easily falling through the cracks.

As we wrote in the last post in this series, income and geography play a significant role in outcomes for the academic middle. Take geography alone: As of 2020 in Washington, D.C., only 16% of Ward 7 residents and 17% of Ward 8 residents had achieved a bachelor’s degree. We know, then, that geography and income are not only holding back the academic middle, but affecting their path to economic mobility.

We like to think everyone has an equal shot at upward mobility, but the path is blocked by access to resources. From having internet access, to obtaining a quality education, to living in a community that provides programs and assistance to its youth – all of this and more can significantly impact students’ outcomes and their overall success.

The path to upward economic mobility narrows even more when race is factored into the equation. According to The Education Trust, the “graduation gap” (the gap between 6-year graduation rates) between Black or Latino and White students has grown to nearly 20%, while Black and Latino families who do try to pursue higher education are saddled with debt. Black bachelor degree recipients have the highest borrowing rates and nearly one in three Black students will default on a student loan within twelve years. Latino students are nearly three times more likely to default on a student loan than White students.

Higher education is vital to economic mobility but few Black and Brown students can get there. There are several interconnected factors that explain why this is so.

The first is generational wealth which factors in white privilege and the legacy of slavery, and Jim Crow and segregation. According to a study by the Brookings Institute, at $171,000 the net worth of a typical White family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family. Economists Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity have written that inheritances and other intergenerational transfers “account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other demographic and socioeconomic indicators.”

This graph bears that out – Black people are still fighting to catch up from generations of racism and segregation.

A second driver of the education gap by race is the Black incarceration rate. This remains one of our nation’s greatest tragedies: One in three Black males have been incarcerated, while the Black imprisonment rate at the end of 2018 was nearly five times the rate among Whites. For CPE students, they and their communities run the disproportionate risk of being in jail rather than being able to pursue their college dreams.

Having a record creates barriers to being a full citizen, including the ability to access educational opportunities for oneself or their family. As we mentioned in part two of this series, that disenfranchisement extends to access to needed programs and services in low-income neighborhoods. Decisions from the 1990s are still holding back low-income Black students in the academic middle today.

A third factor we hear about often is the imposter syndrome – internal and external. Our students don’t feel like they belong, no matter how much they achieve, or others don’t feel like our students belong. Researchers have found that Black college students had higher levels of anxiety and discrimination-related depression, and even celebrated Black creatives like Issa Rae have spoken about their deep scars from feeling like an imposter in largely White sectors.

A fourth way race impacts the academic middle points to pay disparities, and the way professional discrimination holds back people of color and women. There is still a persistent wage gap: Black and Latino men make .87 cents on the dollar to Whites; Black women make 63 cents on the dollar while Latinas make a shameful 55 cents on the dollar to whites. But this is much bigger than a simple 1-1 comparison of two people. Professional discrimination is insidious: it trickles down to family dynamics, affecting young people’s ability to be on equal footing in all facets of their lives. Even if students succeed in achieving their educational ambitions, race still winds up limiting the trajectory of their ultimate economic status.

The racial wage gap limits access to students of color to better schools, better neighborhoods, internet access, and access to supportive services. It drives Black and Brown graduates into different kinds of professions altogether, which pay less. And it shows up in representation in C-suite jobs. That’s part of why these factors are so deeply related – imposter syndrome is much more likely when no one in management has ever looked like you.

For Capital Partners for Education, these are the challenges we see every day – and the weight that our students carry. Race impacts low-achieving students deeply; for low-income students in the academic middle, though, the impacts of racism and racial bias are especially pernicious.

In the fourth piece in this series, we will start to look at solutions, and at the renewed challenges in this moment that are holding back the academic middle.