How ‘college for all’ only deepens inequality

Wells Fargo’s CEO recently faced outrage for a memo noting “the unfortunate ­reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to ­recruit from.”

Rather than pseudo-righteous indignation, maybe it’s time to confront uncomfortable facts about both college preparedness and the way our society bases economic opportunity on college success.

According to critical race theory, our intellectual class’ obsession du jour, any hiring disparity reflects structural racism, and companies like Wells Fargo simply “aren’t trying hard enough” to find black candidates. In reality, there are wide racial gaps even before college. The average black SAT taker trails the overall average by more than 100 points, reflecting a pattern that shapes applicant pools in all college-dependent jobs.

No serious person can ignore these disparities. Improving college preparation is crucial.

But better college preparation isn’t the only solution. We must do more to create opportunity for those less inclined to play the college game.

College is good at filtering for one form of talent. A society that makes college the primary path to opportunity and status will favor one type of person. People with other strengths and learning styles will be left behind. Even those who can succeed at college often suppress greater talents to force themselves into this mold — a recipe for an unfulfilling life.

Rather than more diversity programs to identify “college-caliber” people whom elite colleges somehow missed, we need to bolster a range of career tracks that cultivate and reward a range of talents.

These career tracks need not cap out at a skilled-tradesman level (as attractive as such careers can be). Countless people who skipped college have built thriving businesses. Paul Graham, the founder of Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, has pointed out that college doesn’t just fail to teach key business skills, it actively suppresses them by focusing on artificial tests rather than real-world results.

Peter Thiel famously paid young people $100,000 to skip college and start companies; one of these recently announced it would go public at a $3.4 billion valuation. In my own real-estate company, many people without typical business backgrounds thrived and built successful careers in our less-structured environment.

Yet today, the jobs and networks that build business skills and social capital favor elite college and MBA credentials. They prioritize the same skills colleges do, and they reward the type of person who plays the college game well.

While Wells Fargo could try to develop programs to find leaders with different backgrounds, this may accomplish little. Organizations like Wells Fargo demand and reward the same analytical skills and rule-following temperament that colleges filter for. Our real problem is the degree to which economic opportunity has ­become concentrated in such companies.

In contrast, many smaller companies and less-white-collar industries reward different traits and offer different career tracks. Different types of people — many of whom might never play the college game well — can thrive in such environments.

Yet by pushing young people to a college-and-corporate track, we saddle them with crushing debt, squeeze them into molds that often leave them unhappy and suck talent from non-favored industries and from Middle America. Most important, we leave many people behind by reinforcing a status ­hierarchy that stigmatizes those who don’t play this game.

We would do better to recognize that the higher-education/big-business path is only one of many ways people can succeed. Instead of normalizing the college track, subsidizing universities and favoring large, white-collar companies with regulation — and then decrying the lack of diversity at the top of this world — we should encourage a diverse range of paths. This includes promoting everything from apprenticeships, to small-business capital, to the growth of “real-world” industries, to the recognition that true expertise often has little to do with credentials.

The race-theory-focused view of diversity misses this point. Rather than imposing racial group-based diversity on every company, we need an economy that offers a truly diverse set of career paths to match the diversity of individual strengths and interests. Such a solution doesn’t just help “disadvantaged” racial and economic groups — it helps every American thrive.

Nate Fischer is an investor and entrepreneur. Twitter: @NateAFischer

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