Eric Frazier

The class divide goes to college

Johnson C. Smith University’s Class of 2014 marched last May.
Johnson C. Smith University’s Class of 2014 marched last May.

Michael Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund, dropped in on the editorial board last week to tout historically black colleges and universities as key vehicles of upward mobility for low-income youth.

One of his key points: that President Obama’s plan to offer two free years of community college to all students represents a blunt-instrument fix for one of America’s most complex problems – our inability to get low-income children to and through college.

Free community college misses the mark, Lomax contends, because the average community college student’s annual family income sits at about $60,000. A better solution? He says streamline the federal student aid process, make student loans easier to get and cheaper to repay, and double the maximum Pell grants.

Low-income students could take that new aid to whatever college they choose – including Johnson C. Smith University and the 36 other historically black schools UNCF supports.

Given the bleak college enrollment and graduation statistics for America’s poorest children, the important question right now isn’t which schools should benefit from any new money. It’s this one: Why do we accept a situation in which children from the poorest fifth of all U.S. families have such a small shot at reaching a degree from any college?

If that question shocks or surprises you, consider this:

The percentage of 24-year-olds with college degrees from the poorest families – the bottom fifth income-wise – stood at 6 percent in 1970.

By 2013, the percentage of such young folks who had college degrees had risen. To 9 percent.

Over the same time period, the percentage of college-degreed 24-year-olds from families in the top fifth rose from 40 percent to a whopping 77 percent.

If you’re wondering why income inequality is growing at such a disturbing rate, here’s a big fat chunk of the explanation.

The neediest are falling further behind, even as swift economic shifts cement the notion of the college degree as the golden door to the middle class.

Why is the gap growing? Generations of poverty, shattered families, failing K-12 schools and high incarceration rates – the whole cycle of dysfunction and inequity we’ve come to know far too well.

Lomax acknowledges that the problem doesn’t start with college. We glimpse the end of it there, though, with the odds-defying few who stare down poverty to cross commencement stages.

In our increasingly diverse country, we must get more minority and low-income students through colleges and universities, regardless of what type of schools they might be.

Picture 10 of our poorest children. Nine will never graduate college. And yet Congress is debating freezing Pell grant levels.

Why are we OK with this?

Eric: 704-358-5145; @Ericfraz on Twitter