Tatum: If you just look at who gets a college education in the United States, we know that among adults over the age of 25, about 35 percent of white adults have a college education. If you're talking about African Americans, that number is 21 percent. Among Latinos I think the number is more like 16 percent.
So if I’m an African American parent without a college education, I am probably in a job that is not allowing me to make a lot of money. Fifty percent of African American families earn $40,000 or less. If I don't have a college education, and I'm making $40,000 a year, it's going to be very difficult for me to send my kids to college anywhere. Spelman, for example, costs about $40,000 a year. I like to say that Spelman is a bargain, because we compete with other top liberal arts colleges, and many of those schools are closer to $60,000. But even if you want to come to Spelman, it's hard to afford.
And so one of the challenges we have to think about as a nation is how we want to help young people finance their education. How are we going to invest in the next generation? We know that we're a society that requires more and more advanced education. It's not possible, in the way it once was, to graduate from high school, get a manufacturing job, earn a living wage, and take care of a family. Even if you're in a manufacturing job, it's likely to require more technical skill than it did at one time. And so we have to think nationally, and I don't think we are thinking very clearly.
The solution that I've sought in my role as the president is to raise more and more money for financial aid through scholarships. The truth is there are people with discretionary income who can invest in the education of somebody else's child. And the good news is we've been able to tap into that philanthropy.
Is that the solution for the entire nation? Probably not. But we have to think about the ways in which we are burdening students with not only student loan debt but the interest associated with student loan debt. Why are the interest rates what they are when you can get a car loan cheaper?
Berlatsky: We have a black president now … but on the other hand, we recently had Mike Brown's death and the protests in Ferguson. Do you feel that racism has improved over the course of your time as an educator?
Tatum: I like to tell the story of my family. My father in 1954 wanted to earn his doctorate in art education, and could have done so at Florida State in Tallahassee where he was living. He could have done so—in the sense that they offered the program. But he was unable to attend because FSU was still a segregated institution. Like a lot of Southern states, the response to Brown v. the Board was a slow one; so the state of Florida did what a lot of states did, which was to accommodate the law by paying for his transportation to a school out of the state. So he earned his doctorate at Penn State.