This week I had the privilege of speaking at Hillsborough Community College’s annual Black, Brown and College Bound Summit, in Tampa Bay. Each year, the event is held to highlight the importance of higher education, but also to address and discuss barriers that can prevent young people from going to college and getting a degree.
This problem is particularly acute in communities of color and, as I noted in a recent column, I do not believe that colleges do enough to recruit academically meritorious black and brown youth. This inaccessibility exists for many reasons. One of the reasons is very personal to me and the clients I represent – local and state elected officials have for decades made it a priority to put far more money into locking up people than in education. One study found that, over the last 33 years, states and localities have spent three times more on incarceration than education.
Not only is this cruel and unequal, as people of color represent the majority of the country’s prison population, it just doesn’t make economic sense. Mass incarceration has robbed too many individuals of educational opportunities that could increase earning power and decrease the likelihood of committing crimes, the cumulative effect of which would be a boon to states’ and the nation’s economy. In fact, just increasing the high school graduation rate by five points in the U.S. could lead to a $1.5 billion bump in annual earnings and also result in drastic reductions in crime, which is often linked to a lack of educational attainment. But that represents only miniscule progress; we need much more of our younger people to attend and graduate college.
This is increasingly difficult in a country in which public education systems are unequally funded and have to compete with the prison industry for public dollars. The talented young men and women whom I spoke to this week deserve much more in the way of educational opportunity, but, nonetheless, are aware of the power of a higher education. I am confident in their abilities and excited about their potential. We all should be, as our young people are our future.