WCP: The Hidden Price of Education: Black and Working-Class in Academe

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One of structural racism’s institutional bases is education, which has a long history of excluding, segregating, and discriminating against people of color, many of whom are also poor or working-class. In the abstract, that’s not surprising, but what does it mean for Black working-class academics? In Working-Class Perspectives this week, Salita Seibert describes the economic and emotional costs of getting a PhD. She also offers a to-do list, calling for concrete changes that could make a real difference.

In August 2004, I entered a doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University. My family is from Braddock, Pennsylvania, a largely black neighborhood with working-class roots, and they were ecstatic that I would be their first doctor.

I did not know in 2004 that pursuing my graduate degrees would leave me with crippling debt and mental health issues. These are the hidden price of higher education, part of a pattern of institutional habits and requirements that impact black working-class and poor students at a higher rate than any other segment of the student population.

I did not know in 2004 that economically disadvantaged and/or black students like me accumulate more undergraduate student loan debt. As Mark Huelsman describes in “The Debt Divide: The Racial and Class Bias Behind the ‘New Normal’ of Student Borrowing,” “underrepresented students take on debt and drop out with debt, thereby saddling communities of color and those with modest means with substantial disadvantages as they enter the workforce.”  Student loan debt serves as an impediment to advancement, contradicting the narrative that education is a direct pipeline to professional and economic success.  Now imagine the amount of debt students might acquire in pursuit of advanced degrees while balancing adult responsibilities. While I was in grad school, I also became a single mother, found a job outside of academe because my teaching load was reduced, and lost a year of financial support due to faulty record keeping.  In the end, completing the degree took longer than I hoped, and I was left with more student loan and credit card debt than I ever imagined.

I did not know in 2004 that there is growing evidence that rates of depression in all college students may be significantly higher than the general population. Those rates are especially high for “students with inadequate financial resources [who are] more likely to experience mental health problems.” This is true for graduate students, too, who might be less likely than other students to seek help. By 2008, I was in debt and suffering from severe depression due to a series of tragedies including my brother’s murder. I lost my medical insurance and became very ill. I asked for reasonable accommodations and was dismissed while other graduate students in comparable circumstances were offered flexibility and resources. Adding to the pressure, I was told I was going to be kicked out of the program. My professors seemed to lack any empathy, which contributed to my deteriorating mental state.

June 9th, 2020 I woke to a text containing a link to a petition from concerned Carnegie Mellon faculty and staff demanding that the “university support efforts to dismantle systemic racism in law enforcement on CMU’s campus and beyond.” While agreeing with every word of the statement, I also felt a visceral and immediate anger directed at the faculty touting this statement as a sign of their progressiveness in the face of the administration’s “toothless response.”  Many of these same faculty were the ones who, through their actions or inactions, failed in their moral and ethical duty to me.  In response, I spent the entire day on social media sharing my traumatic experiences.

As I furiously posted story after story, I did not know that several days earlier #blackintheivory started trending on Twitter, thanks to the efforts of Joy Melody Woods and Shardé Davis. A pattern of erasure and silencing of black students and faculty, many from working-class backgrounds, emerges from the stories. Women and men posted stories about being under or uncompensated for labor, delayed professional advancement, lackluster or absent institutional response to racism, discriminatory grading practices, and selective enforcement of policies to push out students and faculty of color. Like me, many shared stories of being made to feel like imposters and punished if we did not work twice as hard. I was not the only depressed and isolated student who had an advisor ask if they were really cut out for graduate school. And many, like me, are still paying for their education in myriad ways, including lower-paying teaching positions with higher course loads, lower credit scores due to higher student loans, lower rates of homeownership, less retirement savings, and fewer assets.

The proliferation of stories with the #blackintheivory hashtag illustrates the different ways in which the intersection of race and class in academe is a space of trauma for many graduate students and faculty of color. The tension between hypervisibility and invisibility, which many #blackintheivory tweets describe, reads like a contemporary update of the prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. While it is heartening to know I am not alone, it is devastating to think that others have and are experiencing similar oversights, dismissals, and challenges.

If colleges and universities want to help establish a more equitable and just society—as many proclaim they dohey must change. As James Baldwin observes in Notes of a Native Son we “have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradiction, or public discussion of such contradiction, into a proud decoration.” In more concrete terms, this reminds us that creating yet another diversity committee is merely an opportunity for universities to applaud themselves while leveraging the unpaid labor of people of color.

In “Institutional Barriers, Strategies, and Benefits to Increasing the Representation of Women and Men of Color in the Professoriate: Looking Beyond the Pipeline,” Kimberly Griffin explains that “institutional leaders must understand and address how sexism and racism are embedded in academic structures, systems, departments, colleges, and programs in a comprehensive way.” Classism is part of the problem, too.

To create a safe, challenging, and nurturing community, colleges and universities must:

  • Weed out faculty who have a history of bad behavior towards students and other faculty.
  • Identify and change policies and procedures that are harmful to the advancement of all student and faculty.
  • Eradicate student loan debt, which is an outsized burden placed largely on people of color, the working-class, and poor.
  • Fairly compensate and provide opportunities for professional advancement to contingent faculty.
  • Commit to hiring and retaining a more diverse faculty.

Salita Seibert

Salita Seibert is an adjunct professor at the Community College of Allegheny County.