The American Dream has been a popular topic of conversation in recent years because, well...it’s dying. Research led by Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty shows that only 50 percent of people born in 1980 make the same amount of money their parents did. That’s a substantial drop from the 92 percent of people born in 1940, and 79 percent in 1950, that’d go on to make more than their parents. The idea that you can work hard, go to college, get a high paying job, and climb the socioeconomic ladder is, slowly but surely, transforming from an achievable dream to nothing more than an American fantasy.
Amidst these depressing statistics, there are people set on giving the American Dream any sort of jump-start to keep it ticking. Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé are the latest.
On the one year anniversary of her album Lemonade, Beyoncé announced the Formation Scholarship. It was awarded to four black women, including two attending historically black colleges. The scholarship provided each recipient with $25,000 to fund their education. In a similar vein, Nicki Minaj took to Twitter in May and offered to pay for her fans’ tuition fees, books, and student loan debt. She put $18,000 towards her fans’ education with the promise of another “impromptu payment spree in a month or 2.” She also said that she’d be launching a charity targeted towards helping individuals with student loan and tuition payments.
Through their financial support, two of the biggest names in music are attempting to keep the American Dream from flatlining. Their effort through education makes sense: Most college-educated students earn more than their parents, even if the same can’t be said nationally. Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé’s focus on supporting black women is paramount, given that economic inequalities disproportionately affect black people. Black middle-class children are more likely than their white counterpart to fall into a lower economic bracket than their parents. Black women in particular have added obstacles in the workplace, including hiring and wage discrimination, and have unemployment rates double that of white women.
In theory, Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé can help fix these issues and ensure greater socioeconomic success through education for the women they’ve selected. But, as tiny drops in a very big bucket, individual scholarships will not be enough on their own. The recipients of their scholarships now have a better chance of improving their socioeconomic status, but these individual success stories fail to fully address the structural inequities in American education.
Minority students who manage to attain the American Dream through education, whether it be with the help of multi-million dollar celebrities or Ivy League schools, are an oddity. Only 15 percent of Latinos aged 25-29 have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Among black Americans, the number is only slightly higher at 22 percent. Residential zoning laws have segregated public schools more than ever before, and a college degree is worth less if you’re born poor. These issues won’t solve themselves. Addressing them will require tackling the extreme racial and economic inequalities in the country.
In the meantime, we have Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé trying to help a handful of young people. Similarly, advocates of charter schools and “school choice” argue that their philosophy of individual choice when it comes to education will help those who would not otherwise have a shot at the American Dream. Critics are quick to dismiss these options altogether, but to criminalize these programs with a broad brush would be misguided.
In Boston, charter middle schools cut the achievement gap between black and white students in half in a single year. In addition, public charter schools have been more effective for low-income and lower achieving students than for their higher-income peers. The merits of giving students the option to change districts, through programs like California’s District of Choice, are tougher to evaluate since they often cause brain drain from poorer districts and prioritize those with the ability to travel to neighboring districts. But, as someone who benefited from attending a school district outside his residential designation, I’ve seen first-hand how school choice can help those who’d have a harder time at under-resourced high schools.
Creating pathways for low-income students of color to achieve educational success is critical. In seeking to overhaul our educational and political systems to benefit the most downtrodden, we must aid low-income students in achieving the American Dream. There’s no one better than someone who has lived in poverty to critically, and empathetically, tackle the issue. To get those leaders, we have to—for the time being—consider charter schools and school choice as viable options.
That said, these programs should target the communities most in need. Many charter schools do not uniformly serve low-income students. In many states, charters serve a greater proportion of low-income students than neighboring schools, but the opposite is true in others. If we’re looking at public education as a tool for equity, we should strive towards making only the former true. Similarly, school choice programs should be reformed to allow black and Latino students a better chance, not to allow their white peers to flee districts they deem inadequate—often because of brown and Latino majorities.
Above all, these programs need to be temporary. Systemically, individual choice in education promotes segregation and inequity. Advocates of “school choice” as a long-term solution are near-sighted and would harm the American Dream. While it’s good—and necessary—to invest in individual students in the meantime, it’s not a lasting fix. Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj are shaping the lives of minority students seeking a better life, but without a complete overhaul of our educational system, they won’t be able to save the American Dream.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a current Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.
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