A college degree has long been considered the holy grail of economic mobility. Getting one, the conventional wisdom says, puts you on the road to higher wages and greater wealth, and protects you from economic turbulence.
A degree also is viewed as the prime path across the economic chasm that divides minorities from whites. Like whites, highly educated blacks and Latinos do indeed have higher incomes and greater wealth than their peers who did not attend college.
It's apparent there is a very big "but" here. A new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that in tough times, a college degree does not provide the same buffer for blacks and Hispanics as it does for whites and Asians. The data were striking.EditorialEditorial: It's time to save the public college routeCartoonDavies' latest cartoon: Key to the White HouseCommentSubmit your letter
From 1992 to 2013, a period with three recessions, including the meltdown that started in 2008, real median income for white and Asian college grads rose 18 percent and 31 percent, respectively, while falling 12 percent and 10 percent for black and Hispanic college grads. All figures were adjusted for inflation.
The numbers for wealth during that period were more extreme: There were increases in median net worth of 86 percent and 90 percent for whites and Asians who finished college, compared with decreases of 56 percent and 27 percent for their black and Hispanic peers.
What's going on here? A lot, some of which is intuitive.
For example, data show whites and Asians are more likely to have advanced degrees, which bring higher wages. They're more likely to have attended elite universities with better job placement services. They're also more likely to have college-educated parents, which translates to more financial knowledge and wealth to be passed down.
Blacks and Hispanics, on the other hand, have less of their wealth in stocks and bonds and more tied up in their houses. So when the housing market cratered, so did their wealth. And in striving to move into the middle class, they accumulated more debt -- more college loans and bigger mortgages.
There are insidious forces at work, too -- namely, persistent racism, in the form of institutional discrimination. It takes many shapes. Put them together and you have a potent obstacle to success.
Look at the studies which show that managers evaluating two job candidates with the same qualifications are more likely to hire the person with a white-sounding name over the person with a black-sounding name.
Look at the companies like Wells Fargo forced to pay millions of dollars to settle claims that they levied higher mortgage fees on blacks and Latinos.
Look at investigations of real estate agents who steer black and Latino home buyers away from white neighborhoods where property values appreciate faster, slowing their accumulation of wealth.
If you start behind, it's a lot harder to catch up -- especially when others are erecting roadblocks along the way.
The good news is that Americans increasingly seem to understand that these obstacles exist. Nearly 60 percent agree our nation needs to continue to make changes to give blacks the same rights that whites enjoy -- a sharp increase in the last year, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
The issue is showing up in the presidential race. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have offered plans that would make college more affordable for more minorities.
That's a start. But a lot more needs to happen to turn the promise of a college degree's impact into reality.
Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.