In April of 2016, Georgetown University issued a formal apology for the school’s role in slavery. In September of 2016, the school announced that it would award “preferential status” to the descendants of slaves who were forced to work for or who were sold by the school. However, Georgetown did not provide financial restitution to those descendants who were admitted to the University (Samsel, 2017). These actions by a top university like Georgetown denote progress in providing access for underserved students, however, this progress is limited to only a select few individuals. Georgetown University and other elite colleges and universities are still too slow to address the systemic issues that are a direct result of slavery and its aftermath, which limits access for African American students. Policies, such as the legacy process, which gives preferential treatment to students based on familial relationships, and economic issues, such as the wealth gap and its effects, limit full scale access for all African American students.
An example of a beneficiary of Georgetown’s policy is Mélisande Short-Colomb. She was born in 1954 and moved from Louisiana to Washington, DC to attend Georgetown in the 2017-18 school year. However, she was quick to note exactly what she received from Georgetown. She noted that she had to apply like all other applicants. She also has student loans, a Pell Grant, work study, and “all of those things that go into being a student, and being a somewhat disadvantaged student” (Donnella & Kelly, 2017).
Short-Colomb’s enrollment experience exposes a problematic approach by colleges and universities when it comes to addressing the disadvantages that African Americans face as a result of slavery and its aftermath. While Georgetown established a policy that awards “preferential treatment” to the descendants of slaves associated with the University, it does not go far enough to address the role slavery played for other African American students or even the students who are direct descendants of enslaved individuals who were sold by Georgetown, as evidenced by Short-Colomb’s situation.
Elite colleges and universities often fail to truly address the systemic effects of slavery and its aftermath that limit access for African Americans today. Slavery has created an educational and socioeconomic imbalance that is being perpetuated by Universities in two crucial ways. First, a legacy process in elite universities exists that rewards people for the past access through which their families benefitted. Second, a wealth gap was created through government action and perpetuated by a lack of educational access, preventing many African American students from receiving the resources and opportunity to reach these elite schools. Even if African Americans are able to gain access to elite universities, they are forced to endure more debt on average due to a racial wealth gap that results from slavery and policies that followed it.
At elite colleges and universities, legacy students, students who have a familial relationship to alumni, make up a large portion of the incoming class. Harvard’s incoming class of 2021 consisted of 29% legacy students, and last year, applicants who “had Harvard in their blood” were three times more likely to receive acceptance into Harvard than those who did not have it. A review in 2011 showed that across the top 30 schools in the United States, children of alumni had a 45% greater chance of admission than other applicants. Legacy students have a tendency to be white and wealthy. At schools like Yale, Penn, Brown, Princeton, Dartmouth, and 33 other colleges, students from families in the top 1% of the income scale make up more of the student body than the bottom 60% of the income scale (Blumberg, 2017).
A combination of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and other government implemented actions have contributed to most African American students not receiving access to most predominately white Universities until recent decades. Even with increased access in more recent years, African American students suffer due to a legacy process that rewards students based on the access that their families had, which is an opportunity not afforded to nearly any African Americans students.
Short-Colomb’s story highlights two important pieces of information. First, she has received access to an elite university, something which has previously only been afforded to mostly white and affluent students for decades. Second, she has to deal with the financial implications of college, which African American students often face as a result of the racial wealth gap that is a direct result of slavery and its aftermath.
Recent studies in 2011 have shown that the typical black household has only about 6% of the wealth of a white household. This translates to a median white household of $111,146 versus $7,113 for the median black household (Shin, 2016). Wealth is considered the difference between the value of a family’s assets (a home, a car, etc) and debts. Much of this wealth gap is created due to policies created by the government. One of the biggest issues is homeownership, which is how many Americans attain wealth. Statistics show that 73% of whites own a home while 45% of blacks own a home. The median white owner’s home is worth $85,800 while the median black owner’s home is worth $50,000 (Shin, 2016). Much of what occurred is a result of redlining, which is a practice of denying services through direct means or by instituting selective disadvantages to target populations. The 1934 National Housing Act redlined black neighborhoods and marked them as credit risks. And though redlining was officially outlawed during the 1960s, poverty rates, lower home values, and issues of infrastructure have perpetuated the issue that redlining caused. Even in the present day, people of color tend to have higher interest rates on their mortgages, and Wells Fargo even admitted to steering black and Latino households towards subprime mortgages over white households with similar credit profiles (Shin, 2016).
In order to eradicate the wealth gap, education is often suggested as the solution, yet, even having a bachelor’s degree does not allow African Americans to overcome the wealth gap, as the return on investment is much higher for whites than blacks or Hispanics. From earning a four-year degree, white families see a return on investment of $55,869 vs $4,846 for a black family. Even if African Americans graduate from college, they often face higher debt, which causes them to start behind the average white college graduate (Shin 2016).
African Americans do not see nearly the return on investment as whites do if they complete a four year degree, but one must consider that African Americans often struggle to even obtain a college degree as a result of many historical reasons. A person’s educational success can often be predicted by their parents’ education and their family’s income wealth. Historic factors such as slavery, when being taught to read or write was prohibited, as well as segregated schooling cause a disparity in education and wealth. African American families are also more likely to be in school districts that are lacking quality or resources because of housing discrimination/segregation and the wealth gap. Subsequently, being in a lacking school district often makes students less prepared for college (Shin, 2016). Because elite colleges and universities are not only more likely to choose someone with wealth but actually reward students who either come from wealth and/or whose families had access to these elite schools when most African Americans did not, most African American students operate at a disadvantage from birth.
Because many African Americans students operate at a disadvantage from birth, they are forced to face at least two obstacles completely out of their control. First, the wealth gap is a product of government action that systematically created an access disadvantage for African American students. As a result of the wealth gap, African American students often find themselves with inadequate access to secondary education and resources, which limits their ability to receive access to elite schools. Since we know many of the top universities take more students from the top 1% of the income scale than the bottom 60%, a lack of wealth appears to be a prominent limitation. Even if African American students do receive individual access to a University, they often face the reality that they need to take out more loans than their white counterparts, which perpetuates the wealth gap and limits their access to success and wealth.
Second, if the wealth gap was not enough, it is compounded with the policy in place by many elite colleges and universities that students should receive access through the legacy system, which affords students benefits merely because those in their family have attended that school. African Americans historically have not received access to most universities until recent decades, so it’s impossible for most students to receive that benefit. The inability to benefit from the legacy process creates an even bigger access issue for African American students and a gap that may continue to widen.
Georgetown University has attempted to right a wrong by providing “preferential status” access to the descendants of slaves who were associated with or were forced to labor for the University. However, in doing so, they highlight the issues of access that African American students face during the college process, particularly for elite schools and universities. Mélisande Short-Colomb, a beneficiary of Georgetown’s policy, illustrates one area of access limitation for African American students. Despites potentially receiving access because of her ancestors, she is still forced to take out loans and receive financial aid. Because of the wealth gap in this country created by systematic government action, many African Americans who receive individual access face this same issue. It should be noted that many of these schools are making attempts to alleviate the costs for low-income students, but these attempts are not nearly enough for all students. There are also large scale issues of limitation that prevent African American students from even receiving individual access to these elite schools. The legacy process creates a benefit for those who are most often wealthy and white despite those same groups already being beneficiaries of the wealth gap disparity.
For schools like Georgetown University and others who wish to right the wrongs of which they helped create, it is perfectly acceptable to commend their attempts to make progress and create access on an individual level for certain African American students. At the same time, it is crucial that we note the limitations of that individual access and acknowledge that elite schools and universities are lacking in terms of providing systemic access for African American students as a result of not only government policies but school policies that created and sustained the wealth gap and the legacy process. Until Georgetown and other elite universities rectify these limitations, their progress of creating selective individual access will be just and only that.
Marcelius Braxton (He/Him/His) is the Director of the Wilbur N. Daniel African American Cultural Center and an Adjunct Professor in Political Science and African American Studies at Austin Peay State University. Marcelius holds a B.S. in Philosophy, Economics, and Political Science with a certificate in African Studies from the University of Pittsburgh, a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law, and an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @MarceliusB.
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Donnella, L., & Kelly, M. L. (2017, September 19). Starting School At The University That
Enslaved Her Ancestors. Retrieved October 29, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/09/19/551356878/starting-school-at-the-university-that-enslaved-her-ancestors
Samsel, H. (2017, June 09). Their ancestors were slaves sold by Georgetown. Now they’re going
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