Last night’s conversation in The Graduate Center’s CHANGE series focused on how to make education more equitable. It’s an issue of particular urgency for the United States, as our democracy depends on informed, socially mobile citizens.

Graduate Center Professor Carla Shedd (Sociology and Urban Education), author of Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, sociologist at UNC-Chapel Hill and acclaimed author and podcast host, joined the evening’s moderator, Professor Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Future’s Initiative, for a lively discussion that centered on racial justice and the ways in which  the COVID-19 pandemic exposed existing problems in and solutions for higher education and K-12 education in the U.S. At its root, their discussion was about shoring up the education system on which our democracy rests.


The participants outlined two quasi different systems of education: public and private institutions of education, with vastly different conditions, experiences, and funding, and accessed by different ethnic and class groups at both the K-12 and college levels.

We “don’t even have the idea that college belongs to all of us,” said Cottom, who focused on inequalities in higher education.

Shedd echoed these concerns for primary and secondary education systems, which present very differently depending on their public or private status. Differences in funding affect each type and are intricately interwoven with issues of race and socio-economic status. The problems start in pre-K, go all the way through college and beyond, and are unsustainable on a societal level, Shedd asserted

The panelists offered deep analyses. According to Cottom, we need to think differently about who is attending college. The myth of the “typical college student,” as has been revealed by the COVID-19 crisis, gets in the way of adequate social and education policy.

“We cannot let go of the idea of a college student being 19 years old, unencumbered, somewhat disembodied — quite frankly, these able-bodied ideas that float around an open-air campus —when in fact empirically the likely and typical college student is a woman, and she is a caregiver; she is a mother.” Cottom said. “Our college students then have been squeezed from both sides —the COVID crisis in K-12 and the COVID crisis in higher education — as have been our staffers, our professional class etc. … We like thinking of college students that way because that student doesn’t need as much public provisioning as the student who needs childcare, who needs health care, who needs mental health services, who needs transportation, housing, food, etc.”

The panelists explored potential solutions to more equitable education and offered examples of positive structural educational change. Shedd called for “more investments in the pro-social institutions, which should be our schools,” to change problematic education trajectories that start in public schools with school police forces, where schools are institutions that are merely “controlling and surveilling and holding people instead of educating” kids, and, as a result, cement educational inequality that follows a child for his or her lifetime.

Watch the full event above or on The Graduate Center’s YouTube channel.

The event was presented with The Graduate Center’s Futures Initiative and the  Ph.D. Program in Urban Education.