These Higher Ed Policies Could Help Close the Racial Wealth Gap

With 469 Congressional seats up for election in November, college students can have a say in how critical issues continue to play out on their campuses and across the nation.

Published March 16, 2022

Edited by Darlene Earnest
Reviewed by Pamela “Safisha Nzingha” Hill, Ph.D.

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These Higher Ed Policies Could Help Close the Racial Wealth Gap
Higher Ed Policy Opinion & Analysis Student Voting
Photo by Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

  • College-aged voters consider the racial wealth gap a vital political issue.
  • Federal and state policies and a critical Supreme Court decision will shape the conversation around wealth, race, and higher education.
  • Issues include affirmative action, free community college, Pell Grants, loan forgiveness, and HBCUs.

Despite its promise of economic mobility, higher education hasn't succeeded in eliminating America's racial wealth gap. As enrollment rates among minority students have grown over the past 30 years, that gap has actually widened.

For millennials, the racial wealth gap remains a vital political issue. Among people under 30, 52% consider the gap a major problem, according to the Institute of Politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Nearly two-thirds of respondents say the disparity between "the rich and everyone else in America" is more severe now than when they were born.

College-age voters hoping to influence change should pay close attention to how their political representatives address the following issues related to race, wealth, and higher education.

Student loan forgiveness. During the 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden said the government should forgive a minimum of $10,000 per person in federal student loans. Since taking office, Biden has forgiven more than $15 billion in student loan debt but hasn't lived up to his campaign promise.

While both parties support some form of student debt relief, Democrats have been more aggressive.

Last year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) asked Biden to cancel up to $50,000 per person in loan debt. Republicans, meanwhile, have helped to pass student loan relief measures, including a forbearance during the pandemic. They have also proposed zero-interest loans for student borrowers.

Increase Pell Grants. Nationally, 72% of Black students and 34% of white students qualify for Pell Grants, which award $6,495 per year. Democratic Senate and House members introduced the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act of 2021, aiming to increase the maximum Pell Grant to $13,000 by 2027.

As of last June, 21 senators and 68 representatives, all Democrats, had co-sponsored the bill. President Biden advocated for increasing the Pell Grant during his State of the Union address.

Republicans aren't as enthusiastic. They prefer measures that support students directly, not institutions, and are more concerned about rising college costs.

Free community college. Community colleges enroll a sizable percentage of low-income students and students of color. In 2019, 37% of community college students came from households earning less than $20,000 annually.

Likewise, 55% of Hispanic undergraduates nationwide were enrolled at community colleges, along with 44% of Black undergraduates and only 41% of white undergraduates.

Initially a staple of Biden's Build Back Better program, free community college has gone by the wayside, yet he remains committed to the notion.

Despite the lack of momentum at the federal level, 18 states — including Tennessee, a red state — already have such measures in place. Maine, meanwhile, is poised to pass a $20 million plan to provide free community college to students who graduate high school between 2020 and 2023.

End legacy admissions. The longstanding practice of giving admission preferences to children of alumni and donors has recently come under fire because it provides unfair advantages to white and/or wealthy families.

A number of elite private institutions, including Amherst College and Johns Hopkins University, have eliminated legacy admissions.

And last month, nine Democrats, led by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York), introduced the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, which would ban the practice except at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and some other minority-serving institutions (MSIs).

Members of both political parties have voiced their opposition to legacy admissions practices.

Affirmative action. Next fall, the Supreme Court will decide if race-conscious admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are legal, potentially causing massive shock waves across higher education.

Unlike legacy admissions, affirmative action is a partisan issue. According to a Pew Research Center poll, only half of Republicans believe affirmative action programs "are a good thing," while 84% of Democrats favor the practice. A conservative-leaning court could reverse 50 years of decisions supporting affirmative action.

Funding for HBCUs. President Biden's Build Back Better Act includes a proposed $10 billion for HBCUs, predominantly Black institutions, tribal colleges, and other MSIs.

Funding would help HBCUs address a range of needs, including student financial aid, infrastructure upgrades, and campus services. The proposed legislation includes a $6 billion increase in Title III and Title V funds for HBCUs and MSIs and would increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $550 for these students.

These measures support the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity through HBCUs. Recently, the White House and the Department of Education named Dietra Trent executive director of the initiative.

HBCUs have long been underfunded by state legislatures, and many have low graduation rates. Still, one-quarter of Black college graduates with STEM degrees come from HBCUs, and 10 of the top 11 undergraduate institutions preparing Black Ph.D. scientists and engineers are HBCUs.

In her memoir, Vice President Kamala Harris credits her alma mater, Howard University, an HBCU, for changing her life.

"Every signal," she wrote, "told students that we could be anything — that we were young, gifted, and Black, and we shouldn't let anything get in the way of our success."