Closing the Racial Wealth Gap: Education

by Sherrell Dorsey |October 12, 2021

Lenience Flowers plays several roles these days: Mom, wife, tech professional and, most recently, teacher.

Like millions of American families, when the pandemic hit and schools closed, she and her partner were faced with juggling the responsibilities of managing their four-year-old twins at home. "I think the pandemic has sort of made visible all of the ways in which our government doesn't support families or parents, and how that really negatively affects women, especially moms," Flowers says.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that nearly all the job losses occurred in 2020 affected women, particularly Black and Latina women who disproportionately work in some of the hardest-hit sectors in the pandemic, often in roles that lack paid sick leave and the ability to work from home.

Studies show that Black and Latinx children are facing the greatest disruptions to learning and disadvantages since the pandemic began. The digital divide, hallmarked by inadequate internet connectivity and access to computers and other digital learning aids, made for a rough transition to remote learning as lockdown restrictions tightened.

Investment in education, both traditional and non-traditional, could play a factor for advancing opportunities for Black Americans from the start and lead to a more equitable future once they enter the workforce.

A mother helps her son with homework

A heavy price to compete in the workforce

"It hasn't been easy, this last decade," says Amanda Spann, a business consultant and entrepreneurship ecosystem builder. When the 2008 recession started, work in certain industries simply dried up. "I'd done all this work to become the next executive in the music industry in the PR and marketing space, and then everyone was getting laid off."

She also took on odd jobs, moved back in with parents or roommates, and pieced together wages to survive the tumultuous climate, forgoing years of economic opportunity as the country recovered.

Spann is among the 44 million people in the U.S. who took on student loan debt to finance their education – a roughly $1.4 trillion balance. But as a Black borrower, her student loan debt burden may have a disproportionate effect on her economic outcome.

A 2020 research study conducted by Education Data found that Black Americans carry the largest student loan debt in the country — an average of $25,000 more than white college graduates. The data showed that 32% of Black undergraduate loan recipients borrow from $40,000 to up to $60,000, whereas 40% of white undergraduate students borrow less than $10,000.

While Spann does feel as though she can breathe a bit, the road was fraught with challenges, of having to rent rooms and take on additional student loan debt as she completed her graduate education.

"But without it, I couldn't open the doors I needed to," Spann says.

Obtaining loans is often the only pathway to education and access to the middle class that many Black students can get. So, in turn, Black professionals must prioritize short-term expenses, such as paying off student loans, and put off goals like purchasing a home, which may help build longer-term equity.

One potential strategy to help balance the college loan burden is to prioritize savings early on. Citi provides Citi Start Saving®, a product and technology platform that can be used by sponsors of children's savings account (CSA) programs, which are designed to place higher education within reach by putting participants on a path to a brighter future and starting smart saving habits.

Such programs are vital, as a 2013 report from the Assets and Education Initiative showed that children with a savings account are three times more likely to go to college and four times more likely to graduate. Providing financial education and some planning can help set students on pathways to higher education and, ultimately, higher incomes.

A senior graduate is hugged by her husband

Reinforcing the avenues to higher learning

Investment in education, both traditional paths such as college and non-traditional vocational and certificate programs, could play a factor in advancing opportunities for Black Americans.

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long been looked to as a means to educational attainment, a ticket to the middle class and a talent pipeline.

“Historically Black Colleges and universities are good places to invest in,” said Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “Strengthen those institutions so that they can recruit individuals to join the workforce, particularly as executives and future senior executive level. Those institutions disproportionately produce a large number of individuals who matriculate and are successful.”

Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have long been looked to as a means to educational attainment, a ticket to the middle class and a talent pipeline.

Recently, investment in HBCUs ramped up in response to the pandemic. CARES Act funding alone resulted in an additional $1.4 billion in support for Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCUs) and minority serving institutions (MSIs), which include HBCUs.

Philanthropic and corporate donors have invested much needed capital in HBCUs, too, especially following the racial equity movement catalyzed by George Floyd’s death in May of 2020. In June of 2020, the Citi Foundation, which works with community organizations to promote economic progress and improve the lives of people in low-income communities, announced a multiyear grant collaboration with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the nation's largest organization exclusively representing publicly supported HBCUs and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs).

In addition to the Citi Foundation’s financial commitment to TMCF, Citi leaders will connect directly with students as part of a personal and professional career development program in an effort to help narrow the racial wealth gap students of color face when entering professional life. Students will have access to the career readiness training, coaching and mentoring, academic support and financial coaching needed to pursue professional next steps.

Meaningful investments in education

As multifaceted as educational inequities are, there are meaningful steps institutions can take to remedy the problem. The path to improved student outcomes includes expanded and enriched learning time like after-school programs, culturally relevant curriculum that connects to students' lived experiences, and establishing a policy office at the federal level dedicated to addressing structural and systemic racism, according to a 2021 report issued by the Brookings Institute.

"Far too many communities continue to face the enduring impacts of systematic racism and generational poverty," the report reads. "Taken all together, this situation presents a series of linked challenges, as well as what may be a once-in-a-century opportunity to reimagine school in ways that nurture the gifts and talents of every child and family."

The Citi GPS Report on the racial wealth gap outlines other routes of access to education and social networking opportunities for career success including participation in programs like Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), Jack and Jill of America Incorporated and offerings through the United Negro College Fund.

Working toward better and adequate funding of early education and training programs will help to onboard Black communities into technical and skills-based careers. As outlined in the Citi GPS Report, these investments can lead to greater distribution of higher-paying jobs among Black Americans, which will in turn, help to narrow wage gaps between white and Black workers.

Sherrell Dorsey

is founder, and CEO of The Plug, the go-to business media and insights platform examining the Black innovation economy. You can view more of her work at tpinsights.com.

The content reflects the view of the author of the article and does not necessarily reflect the views of Citi or its employees, and we do not guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented in the article.