When a magician performs a magic trick, they divert the viewer’s attention to the place where the magic isn’t really happening. The sleight of hand and swift deception happen when the viewer isn’t looking. And, like clockwork, we usually fall for it. 

 In 2014, The US Department of Education gave out $96 million dollars in grants to impoverished or minority students enrolled in higher education. Further, more than $150 billion in federal student aid was given to students who demonstrated ‘financial need’. These grants were intended to help close the equity gaps experienced by people of color and those living in poverty who wanted to attend college. The American public, eager to appear helpful regarding the plights of historically underrepresented groups, approved of this plan.

Yet, this largely respected and ongoing approach is not fully sound in its design and execution. In fact, it might be ineffective in giving our students what they need to succeed. Programs such as the aforementioned undermine the more comprehensive, unpopular methods that would prove more beneficial to our disadvantaged, prospective college-attendees. 

The American public should not be pouring money into the hands of underprivileged students when they knock on the ivy-covered doors of universities. By the time they get there, we are too late. We need to be relaying resources into the communities of people of color, people in poverty, and other disadvantaged groups long before we get here. 

The United States has a long and ugly history of mistreating minority groups. We also know that, after our wrongs are exposed, the United States creates policies that work to annul the unjust, horrific, and inhumane acts toward people of color and minorities. It is honorable that we, as a country, are trying to right our wrongs. But, we should consider digging a little bit deeper when it comes to addressing the needs of our fellow Americans.

Defining equality in this country is hard. How do Americans define equality? Right now, this country is trying to overcompensate for its heinous historical mistreatment of minorities by lazily creating policies that hopefully work to close the equity gaps in education. 

In 2003, the Supreme Court case Grutter V. Bollinger ruled that student admissions procedures that favor “underrepresented minority groups'' do not violate the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause if there are other factors taken into account during applicant evaluation. In short, awarding university entrance to minority students over their equally qualified white peers is currently a legal practice -- even with race acting as the tipping point.

In general, it was argued that equity means different things to different groups. For a white student who has had adequate education, a comfortable homelife, and emotional support their whole lives, they come to college far more prepared than poor and minority students who, maybe, did not have access to these same things in their lifetime. It was decided that historically disadvantaged groups should be given a different set of parameters to determine success than students who have had, historically, many advantages in life.

We know what happens in American politics to issues like these. The polarized, energized tension begins to slowly accrue. That polarization is where the magician wants our eyes to focus. It is not where the answer will be found. 

In a 2017 Hechinger Report study of 44 U.S. states, researchers found that a  startling number of newly enrolled college students arrive unprepared for higher education.

“A high school diploma, no matter how recently earned, doesn’t guarantee that students are prepared for college courses,” read the report. 

What results in this unfortunate reality is that many students are then placed in remedial courses which, according to another study, cost taxpayers around $7 billion annually.

“Besides financial aid, remedial education is perhaps the most widespread and costly single intervention aimed at improving college completion rates,” the 2012 study Improving The Targeting of Treatment: Evidence From College Remediationby Judith Scott-Clayton, Peter M. Crosta, and Clive R. Belfield read.

According to a similar study by Complete College America, the demographics of those who end up in remedial coursework are also noteworthy. It was shown that 56% of all Black students and 45% of all Hispanic students who enter college enroll in remedial coursework. Additionally, 35% of all White students attend remedial courses. And surprisingly, a staggering 42% of all enrolled college students attend at least some form of remedial classes. Devastatingly, in Illinois, there is only a 12% graduation rate for the students who enroll in remedial coursework. 

From this same study, we also know that over half of all individualswho attend remedial courses receive a Pell Grant. Most students who receive the Pell Grant have families who make less than $20,000 a year.This means that more than half of students in remedial coursework are also below the poverty line.

 Saying that the color of one’s skin may be used as a tipping point for any legal decision is exactly the kind of thing this country has fought to end. It is also the kind of flashy, racially-charged topic that keeps people focused on the wrong part of the puzzle. 

It would be more beneficial to all groups pursuing a college education to show up on campus with equally-stocked toolboxes. College is the time for refining the skills necessary in the professional world. If more than half of all African American students and almost half of all Hispanic students only have a 12% chance at graduating, are we really funneling our money into a system that’s working? Or, are we magically applying a bandage to the gaping wound of inequality in America?

What if we could take that $7 billion that is currently funding remedial college coursework and invest it in K-12 public schools that serve communities with mostly people of color and families below the poverty line? What if we could take some of that $150 billion in federal gift aid and reallocate it to somewhere that counts? 

We know that giving more funding to schools with low-income students and students of coloris paramount for its students’ success. We know that funding provides money for new textbooks, curriculum, programs, and better teachers. When we put our money in the hands of our communities that need it most, we finally start to close the gap between historically disadvantaged students and privileged ones. 

Of course, there must be strategic plans put in place for this funding. Hiring five new administrators per school is not going to be beneficial in addressing the inequalities experienced in education.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that when public schools receive more funding, the students inside their walls benefit. It’s about time we, as the American public, start to listen.

We want every American student who is pursuing higher education to arrive on campus as a college-ready pupil. 

However, when we continue to fund unsuccessful programs because we are afraid to say controversial things, we don’t make progress. We should not continue to offer funding to collegiate students of color and impoverished college students for simply being students of color or impoverished. That is unequal. 

Clearly, giving disadvantaged college students costly second, third, or fourth chances at a university isn’t giving our students the success they are looking for. We need to meet them where their needs begin. We need to help disadvantaged students develop foundational skills earlier on in their educational careers. 

When we ensure that every child in America, no matter their economic background or ethnicity, can receive a quality, college-preparatory education, that is when we bridge the gap between privileged and disadvantaged students. Obviously, it’s a rougher course to journey.

That’s because, in this country, we have become accustomed to relying on magical, politically-charged remedies to solve our problems of inequality. It’s time we stop believing in magic tricks and instead, believe in what works: critical thinking and thoughtful, socially-just policymaking. 

ANASTASIA GUSTAFSON is a News Reporter for The Videtter. She can be contacted at ajgusta@ilstu.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @AnastasiaGusta9

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