If you want progress, work for justice. That’s a paraphrase of Pope Paul VI from 1972 amid the Vietnam War. Then, the sentiment was about peace. More than 50 years later, we’re still talking about justice—but now in the context of economic mobility and the promise of American progress.
And in any thoughtful discussion on those topics, we must acknowledge the importance of higher education.
Think for a moment about the profound and lasting benefits of college-level learning. They extend far beyond the people who earn degrees and credentials.
We’ve seen this in the research for years, including the California study showing that each dollar the state invests in higher ed returns $4.80 in tax revenue from increased earnings. A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found substantial financial benefits, as well:
“Each four-year-equivalent degree leads to lower spending on welfare programs, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income, unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, prisons, and medical care for the uninsured,” the study said.
So, it’s not just the students who benefit—a point that Spencer Overton emphasized in our recent conversation about higher education.
Spencer is a professor at the George Washington University Law School and until recently the head of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, often referred to as “America’s Black think tank.” He and I sat down for a revealing chat shortly after the Supreme Court’s recent decision on race-conscious university admissions.
As shown in the reaction to that decision, more and more Americans seem to view economic life as some kind of zero-sum game, where we all compete for a share of finite resources—our single slice of a static pie.
“We have to recognize this is about where we are as an economy relative to China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and other nations,” Spencer said. “Our national goal should not be to supply low-wage labor but to expand opportunity so that we have a broadly skilled, highly productive, and well-compensated population.”
In other words, the more we increase our nation’s educational attainment, the more we boost national prosperity and global competitiveness. That means if we make higher education fairer for those who have been shut out of the system, we’ll all be better off, not just them.
But many don’t see it that way.
“I’m afraid that too many of us are much more short-sighted—we’re very polarized today,” Spencer said.
He says we have to truly confront cultural anxiety—the fear among some Americans that societal change poses a risk to their cultural heritage.
“I’m not saying that we should simply cater to a particular group that feels cultural anxiety, but it is important to acknowledge the issue and proactively develop solutions rather than simply assuming we can do nothing. This is what leadership is, to recognize that different people are in different places. It’s about the art of the possible.”
Our conversation reminded me how much words matter today.
“There’s a communications challenge here—even when it comes to ‘equity,’” Spencer told me. “While I’m a proponent of equity, there are some people who do not see themselves included in that term. Understanding language and what people are hearing is essential to building a strong national workforce system.”
Think of the verbal disconnections that have marked the Black Lives Matter movement.
“When many Black folks hear people say, ‘All lives matter,’ they hear people who are affirmatively discounting the unique challenges faced by Black communities,” Spencer said. “Meanwhile, many ‘All lives matter’ advocates are pushing to ban books and the teaching of U.S. history on race, effectively saying, ‘Don’t take the country that I know, that I grew up in.’”
How do we fix this? People of good will have to press for change, certainly. But systems change only when people do. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans today lived in a time when Black people were legally banned from theaters, restaurants, and other public places. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed the law, but 60 years later the work is still not done.
So, we must keep pressing for justice. But we also have to keep talking about it—about what fairness really means, and how everyone benefits when we work toward it.
Some of this is hard to talk about, to be sure, but it’s worth trying. After all, we’re in this together—all of us.