College Readiness: Faulty Analogies or Faulty White Logic?

In “White Logic, White Methods” several essays address the false rationality of social science that is a thin veneer for whiteness.

You can rationalize away all disparate impacts of institutional racism and sexism if you shape your theories, models and measurements just so.

I have argued vehemently, albeit academically, that higher education research is one of the whitest fields of research out there these days. Somehow econometrics brought the rational choice penchant for ignoring statistical discrimination from econ and wedded it to the efficiency logics of market enthusiasm to create a perfect storm of obfuscation and rationalized oppression.

I mostly brush it off. This is the job and I don’t know of a job where this won’t be an issue.

However, I am clear about my critical position: the rational approach to re-inscribing race, gender, and class disparities in higher education policy, particularly through federal financial aid policy, is anything but. It’s all the same benign organizational racism that it has always been.


So, when the debate about instituting a “college readiness” test for means-tested federal Pell grants unfolded, I did what I often do: I asked about the racial implications of such a policy.

The analogy was clear to me. Even if it wasn’t clear to others, the meat of the argument remains the same. Secondary schooling is compulsory, which requires a commitment from the State to provide access to the primary qualification for Pell — a diploma or GED. A college readiness test would come with no State obligation. The ridiculous notion that excluding poor students who aren’t college ready from Pell would magically incentivize public education to get on the ball with preparing all students is the kind fairy dust that gives us trickle down economics.

Not a single higher education researcher could explain how this was anything but an act of institutional racism.

Being afraid of talking about race doesn’t excuse serious researchers from the consequences of ignoring race. I do not care if you intend for a policy to be racialized. I am here always for asking the ways in which effects are racialized, absent of intent.

So, let me be clear about my “racist” analogy of college readiness to poll taxes and literacy tests.

Wealth drives “college readiness”.

Black wealth accumulation lags white wealth accumulation because institutional racism has made it so.

From redlining that depresses the value of the greatest asset most Americans have to K-12 school districting that reinforces the salience of wealth and home ownership to curriculum and resources, many black students are unlikely to meet some arbitrary standard of college readiness.

And have no doubt that such a measure would be arbitrary. There is no single agreement on what college readiness constitutes.

There is no moral imperative behind instituting a college readiness barrier beyond “saving money”. But it is never clearly stated whose money we are saving or for what ends. Are we saving poor students’ money? Obviously not if we are denying them a grant and forcing them to rely on student loans more than they already do.

So whose money are we saving? I suspect we mean real peoples’ money. You know, not-poor real people.

As in, the not-poor people whose college readiness is possible because kids in other schools don’t get the resources to be college ready.

There is no scenario where the effects of poverty and racism won’t be expensive. The only scenarios are for whom it will be most costly.

The idea that remediating the effects of negative wealth accumulation and poverty through increasing the cost to individual poor people, who are more likely to be black, is anything but racist paternalism has yet to be effectively argued. Mostly because those who propose college readiness tests are too afraid of being called racist to seriously consider the racist effects of their proposals.

Kind of like how we refuse to acknowledge that punishing poor people doesn’t make them less likely to be poor.

It’s all very rational.

~ Guest blogger Tressie McMillan Cotton is is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. This post originally appeared at her blog, Some of Us are Brave