In our final Q&A with AiLun Ku, President and CEO of The Opportunity Network, we asked her to shed some light on the phenomenon that is the “opportunity gap”—a situation people of color, low socioeconomic status, and other determining factors have faced for far too long regarding education, careers, and other major life milestones. She delves into what the opportunity gap is and how it can be influenced and changed through the efforts of well-informed individuals. Read her insightful answers below and see how you can become part of the solution.
What is the “opportunity gap”?
The opportunity gap is the generational consequence of historical and systemic racism, oppression, and exclusion. The long-term inequitable distribution of resources and access to educational, financial, and social opportunities have created layers upon layers of entrenched hurdles for BIPOC students. In an educational context, the opportunity gap can refer to the lack of access to enrichment programs, after-school extracurricular activities, rigorous academic coursework (especially in STEM), college guidance, workplace learning opportunities like internships, and more.
The opportunity gap’s impact on student success
How does the opportunity gap currently impact college and career success, and how can it be closed?
The opportunity gap impacts every step of the journey for BIPOC students, especially those from low-income communities. And the problem only compounds over time, as the lack of access to early childhood opportunities closes the door to future access to other secondary and postsecondary opportunities due to the lack of adequate preparation. For example, predominantly BIPOC school districts are systematically underinvested compared to predominantly white school districts. This means that throughout the entire school system, from Pre-K–12th grade, students in predominantly BIPOC school districts receive fewer enrichment and academic resources—such as advanced coursework, college guidance, and arts and sciences programs—that would have otherwise prepared them for future college and career opportunities.
Closing the opportunity gap will require coordinated and organized systemic efforts that match the systemic cause of its existence. The Education Trust is a respected advocacy organization in the field that has worked tirelessly to close the opportunity gap in the country. Opportunity Insights is another data-driven initiative that names the problems built into our education system and the social fabric of our country through race and wealth and advocates for transformation.
The opportunity gap and COVID-19
How has the pandemic further exacerbated educational disparities and the career opportunity gap?
The pandemic has laid bare the inequities woven into the systems and structures we rely on to live our daily lives. When the World Health Organization formally declared the pandemic in March, the relative ease and resources to transition to virtual work and learning were not equally accessible to everyone. Other than the health care field, many of the jobs deemed essential were positions that pay the lowest hourly wages, such as grocery clerks, food services staff, courier services, domestic workers, and taxi drivers. These low-wage essential workers are overwhelmingly BIPOC. If they had students to care for at home, they were jolted into impossible circumstances to have to find and arrange for safe and affordable child care; to ensure their students had access to the appropriate hardware, software, and connectivity required for virtual learning; and to figure out ways to make ends meet when their income became unstable due to downsizing or getting sick and not being able to work.
The lack of consistent access to income, food, housing, and connectivity all contribute to an overwhelming amount of stress and anxiety that make it tough for any student to prioritize learning. Coupled with under-resourced school districts that didn’t have sufficient financial means and trainings to support faculty and students in accessing all the necessary materials and equipment needed to engage in virtual learning effectively, many BIPOC students from low-income and underinvested communities had no choice but to halt their learning agendas. The pandemic has shown us what was hard for most people was even harder and more complex for BIPOC students from low-income communities.
On the career side, the instability of the economy meant that young people entering the workforce for the first time were left with extraordinarily limited opportunities. And when most job opportunities are advertised through networks, the “network gap” continues to leave many BIPOC workers out of the job market loop.
College and university efforts to close the gap
What role do you feel colleges with a dedication to minority students—i.e., Hispanic-Serving Institutions or HBCUs—play in closing the opportunity gap for professional success after college?
Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other minority-serving institutions are critical spaces for BIPOC students to be able to learn, develop their sense of leadership and agency, and thrive with culturally relevant coursework without the constant and persistent threat of the white gaze—a term that refers to BIPOC students’ experience of having to behave and operate in ways that serves the comfort and norms of their white counterparts.
HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other minority-serving institutions are only partial solutions to the opportunity gap because they, on their own, don’t make up for an inherently racist and oppressive educational system that precedes their existence and goes far beyond their scope of influence. However, they play a key role in addressing the opportunity gap because they do improve and increase the access to high-quality educational opportunities that acknowledge and honor BIPOC students’ cultures and identities.
What schools can and should do
What can other colleges that don’t fall into these categories do to be part of that change?
Predominantly white institutions should look to HBCUs, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other minority-serving institutions to improve how they engage in more meaningful work in addressing the opportunity gap through three dimensions:
- Access: Predominantly white institutions must audit and consider their recruitment sources to ensure they’re reaching far and wide to recruit as diverse of a student body as possible. And institutions should employ financial resources to back up their recruitment efforts of students from diverse cultures and identities—especially those from low-income communities—so students aren’t financially exploited and constricted by a lifetime of loans. After students arrive on campus, access to resources should be broadly and consistently advertised, and the stigma to utilize resources such as work-study, mental health, free meal plans, and learning accommodations must be eliminated.
- Learning: Critical analysis of race and oppression and truth-based cultural studies should be a part of every student’s core requirements—not just an elective. Additionally, selected works for study should be representative of BIPOC authors, artists, researchers, scientists, composers, etc. Every student should have the opportunity to see versions of themselves reflected in what they’re learning and aspiring toward.
- Community: Predominantly white institutions must take a proactive role in creating conditions for their communities that are grounded in mutual trust and care across identities. This will take deliberate and consistent financial and workforce investments and trainings across faculty, administrators, and students. Truly inclusive communities that allow people to feel like they belong require constant tending, nurturing, attention, and action.
We’re so grateful to AiLun Ku for speaking with us and sharing this important information with the CollegeXpress audience. The opportunity gap is an unfortunate byproduct of systemic prejudice that needs more attention and more people who are willing to work toward a just and equitable way of life. We hope our Q&A series has taught you something new that you can carry with you in the fight for equality.