July 14, 2020
by KYLE WESTBROOK, PH.D. – Crain’s Chicago Business
For far too many of our students, and members of our community, the emails that filled our inboxes a month ago affirming the importance of racial equity, rang hollow. With no concrete, bold, and demonstrable action to follow, these messages can easily be filed away in the spam folder of white guilt relief. That email from a company or even a college or university may make the authors feel proud of a well-crafted response to the moment, but it does little to address the enduring structural racism baked into our institutions.
While companies such as Chicago’s Quaker Oats and D.C.’s pro football team have made important steps to remove the worst iconography of racism and oppression from their brands, fewer have taken the most meaningful steps in actually investing money into dismantling institutional racism and providing the foundation for a future that has justice at its core.
This is why the incredible step taken by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado is so important. By cancelling the college debt for some 21,000 students who re-enroll in City Colleges, Mayor Lightfoot and Chancellor Salgado acknowledge two important facts: first, that the increasing cost of college limits opportunity for students who are least able to afford it, and second, that it is high time to get serious about investing in the tens of thousands of residents who started their journey to a degree or credential but were unable to complete it. This debt forgiveness program also represents a modest investment toward rectifying the economic injustice heaped on the backs of Chicago’s black and brown communities for decades.
A 2017 Brookings Institute report described a crisis in which black student borrowers with a Bachelor’s degree default at a rate five times higher than their white peers–20% versus 4%, respectively, making it no surprise that the wealth gap between black and white America has persisted. City Colleges of Chicago’s investment announced this week can go a long way toward reversing this trend for the largely black and brown students who would be Fresh Start’s major beneficiaries.
This important investment in our city’s future should not stand alone but should be matched by other public and private colleges and universities in and around our city, and should provide the blueprint on how to aggressively prioritize racial equity now and in the future.
Here are 5 other steps that colleges and universities should take today to make good on their email messaging about racial equity:
- Permanently eliminate SAT and ACT from their admissions decisions.
- Eliminate or radically reduce developmental education courses which limit opportunities for black and brown students.
- Commit substantial resources to recruiting and retaining black and brown faculty.
- Make eliminating the racial gap in degree completion the highest priority for the institution and commit to sharing disaggregated data on completion and student progress.
- Actively recruit in every single high school in the city of Chicago to ensure that our institutions, especially our public institutions, represent the diversity of our student population.
If cash-strapped City Colleges can make this kind of investment in its future and racial justice at the same time, so can others.
Kyle Westbrook, Ph.D., is the founding executive director of the Partnership for College Completion, a nonprofit promoting policies, systems, and practices to ensure all students in Illinois graduate from college and achieve their career aspirations.