|Women's Leadership Project students and alumni|
By Sikivu Hutchinson
Recently former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called President Obama a snob for having the audacity to suggest that going to college should be a priority. As a privileged white male college graduate on big government’s payroll Santorum’s message to youth of color is: why go to college when there are unskilled sub living wage jobs selling oranges, cleaning houses, washing cars and shoveling French fry grease awaiting you in the ghetto? Santorum’s anti-college diatribe comes in an era when the need for a college degree has increasingly been questioned by both right wing policy makers and mainstream media. Yet, college-going continues to be one of the bedrock civil rights issues for youth of color in the U.S. Over the past several years the wealth gap between black and Latino households and white households has widened. Over the course of their lifetimes college graduates earn nearly one to several million more than do high school graduates. However, in California, Latino youth have the lowest college going rates among youth of all ethnicities despite the fact that they comprise over 50% of students in California schools. While college-going for African American students has increased college completion for youth of color overall remains abysmally low at major colleges and universities. Historically, colleges and universities that have few African American students and few culturally responsive on-campus resources have lower black graduation rates. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “Curriculum differences also play an important role in graduation rates. Carnegie Mellon University and Cal Tech are heavily oriented toward the sciences, fields in which blacks have always had a small presence. It continues to be true that at many high-powered schools black students in the sciences often have been made to feel uncomfortable by white faculty and administrators who persist in beliefs that blacks do not have the intellectual capacity to succeed in these disciplines.”
For youth of color who are the first in their families to go to college these challenges are compounded by the disproportionate number of black and Latino students who are in foster care, undocumented, homeless, and/or formerly incarcerated. Only 44% of LAUSD graduates go on to four year colleges. And the percentage of South Los Angeles high school graduates who do so is significantly lower. Due to budget cuts, inept professional development and institutional racism, culturally responsive college counselors, A-G college preparation courses, and highly qualified teachers are in short supply in high poverty schools. During a recent college forum at Gardena High School four activists from the Women’s Leadership Project and FUEL, CSU Long Beach’s undocumented youth advocacy group, discussed the importance of knowing how to prepare for and navigate college. All of the young women on the panel were the first in their families to go to college. The panelists discussed study groups, mentors, taking the time to meet with professors during office hours and tuning out the distraction of social media and peer pressure. Although the college-going rates of women of color outpace their male counterparts, college-educated black and Latina women continue to face steep obstacles in the job market vis-à-vis sexual harassment, employment discrimination (particularly within the private sphere), and pernicious wage gaps. Indeed, although black men have higher overall unemployment rates than black women, rates for black men improved at the end of 2011 and worsened for black women due to deep cuts in public sector jobs. The panelists addressed confronting sexist low expectations in school-community climates that normalize misogyny, teen pregnancy, and the model of black and Latina women as self-sacrificing caregivers.