From the time Patrick Ben III decided he would go to college, there seemed to be an obstacle at every turn. 

The high school he attended on Chicago’s South Side offered few of the advantages wealthier kids got. There were no Advanced Placement courses, and little help was available with college and financial aid applications. 

“I understood that a lot of the things I did to prepare for college I would have to do myself,” said Ben, who is Black. 

When he finally made it to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the shortcomings of his high school were laid bare. Other students from more affluent places “were sitting there in class talking about how they’ve already done this stuff, where I’m thinking, all of this is new to me.” 

These things “just reminded me of what I already knew about the politics of education and the lack of resources in low-income communities when it comes to schools,” said Ben, now 22 and about to graduate and go back to Chicago to teach while pursuing a master’s degree. 

“I can’t be mad that the opportunities are different,” he said, “because it’s out of my control. It’s just the way society is.” 

As states push back against diversity programs at public universities and the Supreme Court considers whether to eliminate affirmative action in admissions, a central question remains: whether the playing field has finally been leveled, especially between white and Black Americans who aspire to college educations and the higher quality of life they bring. 

The answer? Not only has this divide failed to narrow − it’s getting worse. 

“In a way, we’re in the worst of all possible worlds for civil rights, because people think a lot of problems have been solved,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

In fact, Orfield said, “we’re not making progress. The gaps are huge, and there’s no prospect of them closing in the foreseeable future. We’re going backwards.” 

How does Black college enrollment compare? 

Black college and university enrollment has been dropping steadily. Already down by 22% between 2010 and 2020, or more than 650,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it has fallen by another 7% since then, more recent figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show. 

Even though the number of white students has also declined since 2010, the difference between the proportions of white students and Black students graduating with degrees has gotten bigger, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show. 

Thirty-four percent of Black adults have associate degrees or higher, compared with 50% of white adults, according to the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) 

“There’s a facade that’s trying to be presented that everything is OK. But we never were OK, even before the pandemic,” said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP youth and college division. 

Many factors account for the disparity. The biggest is cost. 

We’re not making progress. The gaps are huge, and there’s no prospect of them closing in the foreseeable future. We’re going backwards. 

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, University of California, Los Angeles 

The average Black household earns about half as much as the average white household, and white families have eight times the median wealth of Black families − $188,200, compared with $24,100 − a gap that also has been widening, the Federal Reserve reports. 

“The equalizer to close these gaps was supposed to be education. If you’re able to go to college, you’re able to find a job and support yourself and your family. But the outcomes aren’t showing that,” said Justin Nalley, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black think tank. 

This economic disparity means that going to college, for Black Americans, is far more likely to require going into debt − and larger amounts of it. Eighty-six percent have to borrow toward a bachelor’s degree. Black students who make it to graduation end up owing nearly 50% more than white graduates, according to the Brookings Institution. 

They also go on to earn less than white graduates, which makes that obligation harder to repay. 

University degree or not, “you’re facing discrimination in the workplace when it comes to hiring and when it comes to salaries,” Cole said. 

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