Stop Telling Black People “You Don’t Need a Degree”

1988 Ad for the United Negro College Fund

“College is NOT for everybody”, and it’s true. However, people spend copious amounts of time on social media offering their perspectives on a wide array of issues. Escapism and needing to feel good is critical right now for all of us. We throw ourselves into the latest Netflix drama and share our personal analysis with each other. But what if that same energy to comment on “freeing Britney” could be applied to an academic discussion after watching a required documentary or a required reading? These days there’s not much more required of college students apart from a few papers that average about 3 pages in length. Access to peer-reviewed scholarly work is easier than ever and often free. Discouraging people from obtaining higher education limits their earning potential more than anything. People simply aren’t aware of what it takes to obtain a college degree because they’ve been discouraged when they already possess the basic skills needed to obtain one. Stay with me.

“Education is the most powerful thing weapon in which you can use to change the world.”-Nelson Mandela


Some Considerations, Before Y’all Come For Me
“But what about vocational school?” Vocational school is a great alternative to college. But if you think about it, in many ways some 4-year and graduate degrees ARE vocational schools. Medical school and law school are vocational schools. They are held to a higher esteem because of the time commitment, but apart from that- being able to get through those schools has more to do with discipline (and in many cases- privilege) than intellect.

The gig economy has allowed for flexibility as well as agency for a modern employee. It is even moreso possible in booming urban areas where delivery services are needed now more than ever during the pandemic. Independent contracting and freelance work can be done as supplementary income or as a full time job.

It has been proven in multiple studies that Black women are the highest educated group in the United States, and yet still do not earn as much as their white counterparts. It has also been reported by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics that Black women make up most of the population employed full-time in minimum wage jobs. Many being the sole breadwinners in their home would not be able to break the cycle of poverty because they have to work multiple low-paying jobs that don’t allow them additional time or mental energy to pursue other ventures. In addition to the stress of dealing with systemic oppression, i’d say we’re doing alright.

College education does not guarantee employment. In fact, the gig economy has been vital in helping millennials overcome college debt- which has resulted in a culture in which home ownership is but a pipe dream for those who do not have generational wealth.

Universal Benefits of a College Degree

Me, circa 2012 working as an aircraft mechanic

I am not coming from the perspective of an elitist. I have personally worked in a vocational career in the south(I was an aircraft mechanic for 6 years) and was too busy with supplementary side hustles to obtain a college degree full time. This is a career that could have lead to retirement, but as a Black woman I still dealt with structural racism and misogyny that prevented my success and upward mobility- in spite of the fact that I possessed more intellect than my supervisors. In certain blue collar work, there is a level of invisibility that only increases if you come from a marginalized identity. You do as you’re told and have very little input, and your insight is not taken seriously. It can be demoralizing and soul-crushing if you’re an innovative person with great ideas. You may most certainly experience these issues with a college degree, but at least you have credentials that state you are capable of finishing a long-term goal. And nobody can take that away from you.

The military makes that apparent from day one. The primary difference between an enlisted person and an officer is a 4-year degree. In an atmosphere when most people join the military just to be able to pay for college, the class distinction between O’s and E’s is almost upsetting. People of color- particularly Black women are drawn to the military because it is the one industry where you receive equal pay based on rank and tenure- which in and of itself comes with its inequalities. But that’s another article for another time. It only further increases the invisibility of people who have so much more to offer besides doing what they’re told.

A college education can enhance personal ventures and side hustles. Having the extra credentials makes a person stand out even in the gig economy. Offering freelance professional services or starting a business already having a college degree could make a person more self-sufficient and have the resources to work independently and effectively. A college education gives you the professionalism needed to be successful in a client-based career and helps build trust in forward-facing positions.

A college education puts you at the top of the list for recruiters when obtaining a higher-paying job that will decrease the need for side hustles. It is far better to be in a place where you have a side hustle for supplementary income or to obtain a financial goal- rather than needing a side hustle in order to pay your rent. Inequalities aside (which I admit are pretty fucking huge), a college degree will give you a massive advantage over someone who has more experience than you but no degree. The jobs that require a degree can also more likely to have financial benefits such as stock options, a retirement savings plan and personal development opportunities (tuition reimbursement or work-related training). These benefits can help create generational wealth.

During the pandemic, the job market is more competitive than ever. Even people with PhDs are struggling to find meaningful employment. So why not take every chance you can to get ahead? One can find escapism is places they may not expect- for example- I never knew I would be so enthralled with international human rights if I was never exposed to it. It expands your world view and gives you the language you need not only to better understand the world, but to better understand yourself.

Black people being introspective on identity, society and culture already have the intellectual capacity to apply those skills to a college degree. Changing one’s mentality from short term money-making to long term future-planning requires encouragement and support. Let’s give ourselves a chance to be greater and do better.



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