At the core of the American Dream is education and one’s right to pursue it without bounds—however, the education system is ringed with inequalities for the poor and others lacking certain privileges. These disadvantages widen the gaps between whites and students of color in higher education.
Most students in pursuit of higher education face a multitude of problems, like the burden of paying thousands of dollars a year. Currently, the total U.S. student debt is $1.4 trillion and growing rapidly each year. In 2017, the average student amassed $37,172 of debt, and every second about $2,858 worth of student debt is accrued.
For first generation college students, often students of color from non-affluent neighborhoods, this problem can worsen as they are more likely to drop out; drowning in debt with no college degree is a calamity. Furthermore, the cost of books and other materials weighs down students’ growth.
Shurly Won, a senior at Simmons University studying computer science and biostatistics, faced these overwhelming challenges. “Financially, many of my classmates have told me that their parents have paid for or will pay for their tuition,” she said. “Unlike them, I need to carry my own burden and take out my own loans.” Won’s responsibility for paying for her college education put her in a different headspace from many of her classmates.
Many students of color have similar burdens, especially when attending predominantly white schools. Won called her financial advisor before attending Simmons and explained her circumstances, which helped her manage the financial toll college education would take on her.
“For incoming minority students, I would like them to know that if they happen to be in a difficult situation, never be afraid to speak up,” she said. “There are likely other people on campus who share the same situations.”
Jaelle Sanon, a junior at Cornell University majoring in industrial and labor relations, echoed these same sentiments. “Take advantage of everything and also advocate for yourself,” she said. “The school accepted you, and now they must give you all the resources needed to succeed.” It is also in the best interest of the college to provide these resources and support programs so students’ successful graduation is guaranteed.
Many students in college feel out of place, disorganized or homesick. For students of color, these problems are only heightened as the cultural dynamic shift is bigger and stronger.
According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, starting from K-12 education, students of color are plagued with inequalities, with schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic students offering “disproportionately fewer math, science, and college preparatory courses” and experiencing “disproportionately higher rates of students who were held back in 9th grade, suspended, or expelled.”
An educational gap is one of many factors making life different for students of color in the U.S. These differences manifest themselves as huge obstacles in college as students of color are faced with problems they’ve never encountered before.
Students of color need close support from the institutions they’re attending to guarantee success. Sanon goes to a predominantly white institution, or a PWI, and is a first generation college student of color, which makes her experiences very hard at times. “Academically, I felt like I wasn't prepared for Cornell, but it is a learning curve,” she said. “You learn as you go. I had to re-learn how to read, study and take exams. However, Cornell provides academic services, and I have been able to surround myself with friends in my major to help me.”
At Cornell, Sanon attended the Prefreshman Summer Program which she credits for helping her transition from high school to college. “The Prefreshman Summer Program allowed me to take classes in my major before I officially started Cornell as well as familiarize myself with the resources Cornell offers for low-income students,” she said. “I also met some of my best friends there.”
Programs like these help students of color adapt and prepare themselves for a successful four years of college.