Higher education: a not-so-golden ticket to the future

By Odest Riley, Jr.

Guest Columnist

In the African-American community, education has historically been sold as the “great equalizer” and a viable way for former slaves turned sharecroppers, turned segregated people, to freely enter into the workforce and have an opportunity to participate on a “level playing field.”

For many of us, a “good education” was sold as the true doorway to economic freedom and yet it has become one of the largest, most overwhelming debts that many middle class African Americans still have to deal with even years after graduating from college and/or grad school.

Just to receive one of those coveted college acceptance letters, many of us worked our butts off to get good grades from kindergarten to high school. We studied hard. And some of us even participated in extracurricular activities with the hopes of obtaining an academic scholarship, just to get one of those “golden tickets.”

Fast forward to today. Over the past 25 years, the value of those golden tickets to our economic prosperity — commonly known as a four-year college education — have morphed and drastically depreciated.

Once believed to be a way for many of us to distinguish ourselves from the competition by giving us “a foot up” in the hiring process, has now become an “economic albatross” around our necks, keeping many of our well-educated, highly paid African-American families from creating and sustaining generational wealth.

For our counterparts, it was — and still is — a different story. While they may have attended school with us, many of them often had the privilege of their parents paying for those four to eight years of “good education;” essentially leaving them unburdened, debt free, and ready to hit the corporate streets running after they graduated from college.

But many of us in the African-American community didn’t — and still don’t — have that same advantage or experience once we graduate. Instead of leaving college with a golden ticket, we end up graduating with a ticking economic time bomb that hangs around year after year, counting off the days until the college debt has been repaid.

As a real estate professional, I often see the drastic effects student loan debt has on one’s ability to purchase or even afford a home. I’ve seen monthly student debt repayment amounts so high, that it has kept many young, educated African-American professionals from even qualifying to buy their first home or condo.

As a result, they are forced to rent for many years, often much longer than their colleagues, creating the inability for many of them to invest in real estate and begin to build a financial portfolio large enough to sustain their families through their golden years.

In my opinion, the golden years should be a time to relax and reflect on the life we have built for ourselves, our children and our community. It’s the quality time you spend with your children and grandchildren as you impart words of wisdom on them.

However, because we have not been able to build the necessary nest egg for our retirement, we have to continue working full time while the school system and day care centers raise our grandchildren.

Not to say this scenario is true for every African-American household, but far too many of us fall under this umbrella. And one of the main reasons why is that we preach education is key to our children, but don’t spend the necessary time also explaining that while education is important, not all education is equal.

Equality isn’t as simple as earning a degree. Maybe 40 years ago it was enough to establish yourself and break into the workforce. But in today’s marketplace, the American economy is based on being a specialist and having a specific skillset. And that skillset will determine whether you make $100,000 a year or $30,000 a year.

And while your child may want to get a degree in sociology, history or marketing and you support them pursuing that major, statistics show that those degrees don’t pay as much as they do for those in math, science or engineering.

So, as we send our next generations of scholars out into the world armed with the information to get into these wonderful schools of higher education, we should also be sure to tell them they should be focused on getting a degree in a field that will pay them more than the education cost to attain it.

So, in the end, think about it. While it may feel better to say that “My son has a doctorate in nonprofit management,” it might have been a smarter financial decision for your son to have monetized a skillset and become a plumber, a truck driver or even an entrepreneur.

Odest Riley Jr. is CEO of WLM Financial, a privately held, full-service real estate firm; and the author of “The ABCs of Real Estate Success.”