Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
The other education gap.
There’s been some debate on the issue, for sure, but most of the research has been conclusive—you should go to college. As of 2013, to the Department of Labor, the nationwide unemployment rate for those with just a high school diploma was 7.5 percent. But for those with an associate’s degree, it was 5.4 percent. And for those with a bachelor’s degree, it was even lower: 4.0 percent. Additionally, the department found that Americans with bachelor’s degrees were earning nearly twice the median weekly salaries of those with just high school diplomas—$1,108 versus $651 a week.
And yet, the new poll indicates that even among just the college educated, there’s a gap: one between the way minorities with college degrees perceive their job prospects, and the way college-educated whites do.
When asked to describe the availability to good paying jobs where they live, urban-dwelling minorities with college degrees were much less optimistic than their white peers. Specifically, many more minority respondents reported job availability was “poor”—28 percent of urban college-educated minorities versus 18 percent of urban college-educated whites.
The poll found a similar—if less dramatic—dynamic between non-urban (those in suburban and rural areas) college-educated whites and non-urban college-educated minorities.
As the U.S. pulls out of recession, the majority of urban college-educated whites and urban college-educated minorities reported that job opportunities where they live have stayed about the same over the past twelve months. While more minorities reported that job opportunities had decreased, the difference between their responses and those of whites fell well within the margin of error (+-3.4) for the survey.
So why, then, are college-educated minorities looking around and seeing fewer good paying jobs?
The State of the City survey only asked participants how they felt about their job prospects, but it should be noted that Department of Labor data supports our college-educated respondents’ gut instincts. In 2013, the unemployment rate for African Americans with bachelor's degrees was 5.7 percent—significantly higher than the unemployment rate among whites with college degrees (3.5 percent).
Though our poll did not delve into the reasons behind survey respondents’ answers, existing research gives us a few clues. The first possibility, raised by a 2013 Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce report, is that whites and minorities are not receiving the same quality of higher education, leading to income disparities after they graduate. “Minority access to postsecondary education over the past 15 years is a good news – bad news story,” the researchers wrote.
While net new freshman enrollment growth at all postsecondary institutions increased by 73 percent for African-Americans and 107 percent for Hispanics between 1995 and 2009, the vast majority of those minority students are routed to open-access two- and four-year colleges. Whites, whose net new freshman enrollment was a comparatively meager 15 percent, were responsible for 82 percent of the enrollment growth at the country’s 468 most selective four-year colleges. Hispanics, by contrast, were 13 percent of selective growth; blacks were 9 percent. Those enrollment differences are not, the researchers found, due to a dearth of highly qualified students. Instead, minority students who earned A’s throughout high school were 8 percent more likely to enter community colleges than their similarly qualified white peers (30 versus 22 percent).
Where college matriculators receive their degrees, the Georgetown researchers found, actually matters. Selective universities spend two to five times more resources on their students than open-access schools. Furthermore, students at more selective universities have higher completion rates, higher rates of graduate school enrollment and, yes, higher future earnings—$49,000 per year for open-access degree holders, versus $67,000 for selective college degree holders.
That college-educated job prospect gap, then, might be due to the institutions where minorities are receiving their degrees, as college-educated blacks and Hispanics lose out to whites with “premium” degrees.
There’s little question that institutionalized racism also has a place in the white collar, corporate world that many Americans seek to enter after finishing their college degrees. A 2013 National Journal poll suggests that blacks are especially sensitive to discrimination in the workplace: When asked how to reduce the income gap between white and minority families, 29 percent of blacks said leaders and policymakers should put more effort into combating discrimination where people work, compared to just nine percent of whites.
Research shows that minorities often perceive delicate racial biases in the workplace, an issue that their white peers may not even detect. In a 2013 study of the corporate workplace, human resources specialist Tonya Harris Cornileus spoke to 14 African American men with college degrees or higher, who all indicated they had sensed strong – but not explicit – racial dynamics in their workplaces. One respondent said he had to constantly work against stereotypes attributed to African-American men: “The thug, pimp, womanizer, lazy.” Had those stereotypes affected his experience in corporate America?, Cornileus asked. “Without a doubt,” he replied. “Sure. You’re not given the opportunities.”
Cornileus also reported that black men in the corporate world found themselves on the periphery of workplace social circles. She writes:
Participants admitted that as first-generation corporate executives, they often learned about informal social networks and the unwritten rules through trial and error while many of their white counterparts had fathers or other family members as early role models who taught them about corporate America and how to acquire sociopolitical capital. Participants also shared stories of the evidence of the good-old-boy network, tangible examples of when their white peers gained access to information that was unavailable to them or were invited to after work social events that they were not invited to attend.
Other research has found that racial discrimination can begin even before minorities enter the workplace. First, work by sociologists Matt Huffman and Philip Cohen indicates that blacks, specifically, are sometimes sorted into “black-type” jobs that pay less, on average, than occupations dominated by other races. Their models predict that the average job with no black workers will pay between $9.18 and $10.01; average all-black jobs, on the other hands, pull down between $7.98 and $9.00. “Thus, we are confident that black-dominated jobs have lower average wages, net of other relevant factors,” they write.
But even minorities seeking to enter typically white—and typically higher paying—workplaces face challenges. Sociologists Sheryl Skaggs and Jennifer Bridges describe racial and gender discrimination in the hiring and promoting processes as the “accumulation of many, possibly non-conscious, cognitive errors in perception, judgment and evaluation.” That is, of course, what makes the problem so pervasive—often, the evidence of discrimination can’t be traced back to a single, overtly racist email or interaction.
Why are educated urban minorities particularly disenchanted? Harvard Kennedy School researchers suggest that some inequalities can be linked to certain types of urban neighborhoods, where under-funded schools and community colleges leave students underprepared for four-year colleges and the workforce. The dense residential patterns of low-income African Americans and Latinos (the result, as The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, of systematic and discriminatory public policy) also plays a part, as those who live in homogeneous neighborhoods tend not to have the financial, human and political resources of their peers.
Of course, this points to a larger employment pattern, one that’s also evident in our poll: Minorities at all levels report they’re disadvantaged when it comes to obtaining well-paying jobs.
The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the poll's methodology, go here.