College Degrees for Social Justice How to turn your education into a career fighting inequality

Beth
Beth Thorne Expert Contributor Read More

The thirty richest people in the United States are worth $792 billion, yet 633,000 Americans are homeless during the winter. Inequalities exist in nearly every corner of the country. Added together, they reveal broader systemic injustices tied to lack of economic opportunities, education, justice and healthcare. But millions of professional devote their lives to helping others overcome inequality. From social workers to civil rights attorneys, those with a passion for fighting inequality and find fulfilling careers across dozens of professional fields. This guide explores these career and education programs, provides resources for fighting inequality, and gives insights from a nonprofit professional.

What Is Inequality?

Although the U.S. strives to award people based on their merit, some groups face systemic obstacles to achieving the American dream. The term “inequality” refers to disadvantages whole groups of people face because of their age, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic status. These disadvantages can help determine whether someone can access education, well-paying jobs or quality healthcare. Moreover, inequalities are often interrelated. For instance, social inequality forces many minority groups into subpar schools, leading to long-term income loss that makes them less able to afford healthcare.

The term “social inequality” provides an overarching framework for examining injustices related to race, age, gender or socioeconomic status. It is concerned with general ideas of discrimination and uneven systems of reward and punishment for specific behaviors.

Did you know that the top 10 percent of American wage earners make nine times the average salary of the other 90 percent? Economic inequalities come into play when looking at income, pay and wealth disparities and how they correlate to factors such as race, gender and socioeconomic status. As the gap between the top and bottom earners widens, those in the lower tiers face decreasing access to economic opportunities.

Racial inequalities exist at many levels, including education. Forty-seven percent of white citizens hold at least an associate degree, while the number drops to 33 percent for African-American citizens and 23 percent for Latinos. Meanwhile, in 2011 the median income for an African-American household was $27,000, 41 percent lower than for an average white household. Regardless of the context, racial minorities lag in countless areas of access, leading to deepened inequalities throughout their personal and professional lives.

The global economy expanded between 2001 and 2011, cutting the portion of the global population living below the poverty line—making fewer than two dollars a day—from 30 percent to 15 percent. Still, a 2014 Oxfam report found that the 85 richest people on the planet possess more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest.

Imagine two children are born on this day, one in Malawi and one in Japan. Due to current health inequalities and living conditions, the Japanese child’s life expectancy is already 36 years longer. While uneven access to healthcare is a major facet of health inequality, living and working conditions are also important factors. Recent years have seen progress in the U.S., but global health remains a pressing issue.

Although the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, LGBTQ individuals can still be legally fired from their jobs in some states due to their sexuality. Likewise, although women comprise more than half of the American population and hold the same titles as male coworkers, they are still paid 21 percent less than male colleagues. Inequalities in these populations often stem from prejudice or ignorance, so activists can make an impact by educating their communities on the issues.

Career Ideas for Fighting Inequality

Countless occupations exist for people who want to fight inequality. Some people become activists positioned at picket lines. Others work with those from disadvantaged groups as career counselors, teachers in underserved communities or public defenders. Still others attempt to bring about high-level change by running for public office or informing policy decisions with research. Anyone with a passion for fighting inequality can find their niche in the field: there are fulfilling careers out there for high school graduates and PhD holders alike.

I want to fight inequality by…
01 I want to fight inequality by providing immediate support
Social Worker

With the professional directive of helping individuals handle issues in their day-to-day lives, social workers help people overcome discrimination to navigate unjust systems. Clinical social workers are qualified to diagnose behavioral, emotional or mental issues and create treatment plans. Entry-level positions require a Bachelor’s in Social Work (BSW), and advanced clinical roles require a Master’s of Social Work (MSW). The majority of states require licensure for nonclinical social workers, while all require certification to work in clinical settings.

Learn more Counselor

Since there is a risk of people with mental health or substance abuse issues being left behind by the healthcare system, counselors provide a vital role in helping clients regain and maintain good mental health. This may mean dealing with addictions, preventing relapses, working through difficult emotions or exploring career paths. Most roles require a bachelor’s or master’s degree in counseling and licensure.

Human Services Professional

Human services professionals go by many names. They are hired by halfway houses, correctional facilities, mental health agencies and youth resource centers, just to name a few. These caring individuals are on hand to connect disadvantaged or disenfranchised individuals to services for finding employment, healthcare or support. Employment requirements range from a high school diploma to a graduate degree, depending on the role.

Interpreter/Translator

One of the biggest barriers to equality for immigrant and ethnic minority populations is language, especially when it comes to pursuing education and making higher wages. Interpreters and translators ensure client needs are represented in areas of education, healthcare, legal proceedings and job negotiations. Some translators and interpreters may seek specialized training, but it is generally not required.

Correctional Officer

While the first role of correctional officers is to ensure rules are followed and security measures are respected, they must also contribute to inmates’ rehabilitation. Correctional officers passionate about breaking the cycle of incarceration can work with prisoners who don’t want a past transgression to define their lives. Employment requirements range from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree and training.

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02 I want to fight inequality by improving education
Teacher

Teachers can have a profound effect on the futures of students of all ages. Providing academic and life lessons while believing in individual learners’ abilities can make a difference for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, putting them on a passageway to opportunity. Most teaching positions require a bachelor’s degree, and head teaching positions may require a master’s. Public school teachers must meet state licensure standards, while private schools set their own requirements.

Learn more Health Educator

By leading programs and workshops for local communities, health educators are at the forefront of teaching people how to best care for themselves. Besides direct client work, they also advocate for better access to healthcare and resources for those they serve. Entry-level roles require a bachelor’s degree, while administrative or advanced positions may need a master’s degree. Certification isn’t often required, but some employers encourage it.

School Psychologist

Many students from disadvantaged backgrounds are keen to learn but face obstacles at home, including lack of nutritious food, transportation, sleep or parental support. School psychologists address behavioral or learning issues and help students develop coping mechanisms to support their mental and emotional health. They may create individualized plans to help teachers better reach students. Most roles require an education specialist degree (Ed.S.), although some may accept a relevant master’s degree. The majority of states require psychologists to be licensed.

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03 I want to fight inequality by changing policy and interpreting the law
Politician

Politicians work at the local, state or national levels to craft policies and laws that improve public welfare. Whether advocating for community rights on the city council or crafting laws as a congressperson, politicians have a say in how governments treat their citizens. Though higher education is not a requirement, it’s rare to encounter a politician who doesn’t have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some common majors include public policy, political science, business and economics. Many politicians also have law degrees.

Grant Writer

Whether working for one organization or freelancing for several, grant writers help nonprofits get funding for their programs. For example, they may work with a community health center to research grants for a project expansion or help a job placement program secure funds for workforce training. Most grant writers hold at least a bachelor’s degree in an area such as English, communications or nonprofit management.

Civil Rights Attorney or Public Defender

While not all lawyers are focused on social justice, some spend their careers addressing inequality. Civil and human rights attorneys represent clients seeking to gain access to equal education, expand LGBTQ rights or confront racial discrimination. Meanwhile, public defenders represent clients who cannot afford an attorney. Lawyers must hold a Juris Doctor (JD) degree gained from an American Bar Association-certified school and pass the bar exam in their state.

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04 I want to fight inequality by spreading the word
Journalist

These professionals inform the public about relevant information, including impending legislation that can improve their lives and abuses of power by individuals meant to protect them. Investigative journalists can bring to light issues of inequality, such as human rights abuses, discrimination or international poverty, and bring awareness to these issues. Most journalists hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism, communications or English.

Learn more Photographer

Photojournalists and freelance photographers share the human condition in times when images are more powerful than words. Whether snapping the mistreatment of Syrian refugees, capturing the impact of a local food bank, or documenting a racially charged riot, photographers make the world aware of inequalities and what’s being done to fix them. Many photographers learn their craft through passion and practice, but some news organizations require them to hold a degree in photography, photojournalism or fine arts.

Learn more Videographer or Documentary Filmmaker

A picture can speak a thousand words, but a film can go further in sharing a story. Filmmakers may work locally or travel the globe capturing moving images that illustrate inequalities or triumphs of social justice. Like photography, many videographers learn their trade through self-teaching or apprenticeships, but degrees are also available in film, broadcasting and video editing.

Activist

Sometimes called organizers or campaigners, these ground-level workers collaborate with local citizens, journalists, business owners and government officials to highlight inequalities and increase public engagement on particular issues. Some are experts on a specific region, while others accumulate knowledge on a particular topic, such as gender equality. Degree requirements vary by position, but most call for a bachelor’s degree in social work, sociology, political science, communications or women’s studies.

05 I want to fight inequality by informing policy and the public.
Economist

Tasked with understanding how goods, resources and services are produced and distributed, economists can identify structural inequalities related to income and wealth. By collecting and analyzing data, they understand the nuances of unjust actions and in turn contribute expert advice to shape government policies. Entry-level roles require a bachelor’s degree, but the majority of advanced positions call for a master’s or doctoral degree.

Learn more Sociologist

Whether focused on health or education, race relations or gender, sociologists are keen and qualified observers of how societies behave and function. Their understanding of the systems and hierarchies at work in daily interactions allows them to identify unfair treatment. Sociologists hoping to work in clinical or applied settings need a master’s degree, but those planning to teach or research typically pursue a PhD.

Statistician

These wizards of data collection analyze raw information to find patterns. For instance, statisticians may contribute meaningful research on historic trends in poverty or detail the relationship between education attainment and income. Entry-level roles require a bachelor’s degree in statistics, economics or math.

Learn more Political Scientist

Political scientists concerned about social injustice often elect to work in areas where their research and theories can inform future governance. By studying how past and current laws affect citizens, they can recommend improvements to public policy in areas such as criminal justice, maternity leave or job placement assistance. Most political scientists hold a master’s degree or PhD.

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06 I want to fight inequality by improving career prospects
Career Counselor

Career counselors help members of the community build better lives for themselves and their families by increasing their employability and job prospects. They may point them to training programs or work with them to bolster their resumes. Most career counselors hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in counseling or business, regardless of whether they work at a nonprofit or a school.

Career and Technical Education Teacher

Unlike university professors, who teach theoretical or foundational topics in addition to core courses, these teachers impart vocational skills to students. Much of their daily work is similar to other teachers, including planning lessons, grading assignments and lecturing. They tend to work with students who would not otherwise attend college, including low-income and minority populations. Most have a bachelor’s degree in an area related to the topic they teach.

Adult Literacy & High School Equivalency Teacher

Whether their classrooms are filled with adult students looking to complete their GED or immigrants trying to become more fluent in English, these teachers impart foundational knowledge to people with limited resources. They can make a difference in the jobs graduates qualify for and help them improve their confidence in daily interactions. Most hold a bachelor’s degree.

Learn more Human Resources Manager or Specialist

HR managers and specialists, whether working for a multinational company or a small nonprofit, spend their days getting to know prospective and current employees. Besides interviewing and hiring new workers, they provide training and professional development opportunities that help employees increase their job competence and earn higher salaries. Most HR professionals have a bachelor’s degree in human resources or business.

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Spotlight: Social Inequality Degree Programs

College is a time when many people expand their worldview and develop a passion for serving others. The spark may be reading about racial injustice for a sociology class or discussing economic inequalities in a political science course. Although few degree programs are devoted to fighting social inequality, students can be exposed to relevant topics in any course or corner of campus. Several concentrations home in on these topics. A few are highlighted below.

Concentration in Poverty and Inequality Stanford University (Stanford, CA) Graduate

This concentration is available as part of the master’s degree in public policy offered by the Stanford Center on Poverty & Equality. Along with completing public policy coursework in econometrics, law, political philosophy and cognitive psychology, students select three electives in the areas of labor economics, social stratification, homelessness and marginality.

Program on Social Inequality (PSI) Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) Graduate

This concentration is available to PhD sociology students and involves in-depth study of social inequality and its causes, consequences and potential solutions. Coursework includes sociological analysis of family, education, immigration and policy with an emphasis on research methods. The program is interdisciplinary, encouraging students to delve into economic, historical, political and geographic influences on inequality.

Minor in Inequality Studies Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) Undergraduate

The Center for the Study of Inequality immerses students in theoretical and practical knowledge surrounding the fight against social injustices. The program benefits students pursuing careers in public or private sectors or aspiring to graduate study. Students select six courses to fulfill program requirements, with options including Race and Public Policy, Families and Social Inequality, and an Economic Analysis of the Welfare State.

Inequality Studies University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA) Undergraduate

The degree in inequality studies is managed by the Interdisciplinary Studies Field at Cal and pulls from many disciplines to create a holistic understanding of the topic. Students can choose from a spectrum of classes covering subjects ranging from global inequality and educational access to discrimination and poverty.

Poverty and Inequality Program of Study The University of Chicago (Chicago, IL) Graduate

The School of Social Work Administration offers this option as part of its AM degree, the equivalent of a Master’s in Social Work (MSW). Students selecting the administrative concentration are eligible to follow this program of study, which includes two core courses and several related electives. In addition to gaining an understanding of the historical context of inequality, students explore longstanding structural conditions contributing to inequality.

Inequality and Social Change Concentration George Mason University (Fairfax, VA) Undergraduate

Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sociology can concentrate on inequality and social change by taking 12 credit hours on the topic. After completing a required class in social inequality, students choose three more topics ranging from health and disability to politics and immigration.

College Courses Discussing Social Justice

Some students may want to learn about social justice within the context of their chosen discipline rather than completing a full degree or concentration on the subject. Fortunately for them, there are hundreds of classes offered at every degree level. These classes span across academic departments, allowing students to tackle the topic from different angles.

Poverty in America Sociology Boston College

By calling on students to move beyond stereotypes and surface-level understanding, this course highlights the systemic complexities of low-income living on a day-to-day basis.

Understanding Social Justice and Human Struggle Justice Studies Eastern Kentucky University

Introduces students to basic concepts related to social change and justice while also examining how things like politics, the economy, media, or education influence how those ideas work.

Gender, Crime, and Justice Criminology, Law, and Justice The University of Illinois at Chicago

This course takes a close look at crimes committed by women and how women are treated as members of the criminal justice system – be they insiders, victims, or employees.

Social Justice and Community Service Religion La Salle University

Using theological principals as the guiding light, students in this course learn what it means to seek justice on behalf of disadvantaged individuals while also upholding biblical commands.

Stereotyping, Prejudice, and Discrimination Psychology Trinity College

Students learn how to identify different tools of inequality at work in a person’s life and how they play out in areas of race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, or health.

Juvenile Delinquency and Juvenile Justice History Carnegie Mellon University

This course looks at the history of the juvenile court and justice system and how it has evolved over time. Students also have the chance to heart form individuals who currently work in juvenile justice.

Introduction to Environmental and Social Justice American Studies The University of New Mexico

Students are asked to look at issues of social justice within the context of environmental policy, uncovering the ways socioeconomically disadvantaged people have been exposed to toxic waste.

Expert Interview: How to Launch a Career Fighting Inequality

How can students best prepare for a career focused on fighting inequalities?

Inequality encompasses a huge variety of fields. It’s important to recognize this early and identify which area you find most compelling and where you could have the greatest impact. While the goal to “end inequality” is admirable, it is, for most of us, unrealistic. A narrower focus allows you to find an organization having a concrete impact but doesn’t mean you can’t work on other aspects of inequality in that position. My organization aims to reduce educational inequality, but I’ve also been involved with reducing other types as well. I narrowed my focus by learning as much as I could about educational inequality, but also [about] other types to rule those out.

What are some ways students can gain experience and knowledge while still in school?

A theoretical understanding is important. I wrote my dissertation on nutritional inequality and its relationship to academic performance, and it’s been helpful in my career for introducing me to different approaches to topics I now work with directly. I also recommend participating in community service and/or internships related to the field. Practical experience, whatever the level, is very appealing to an employer. Having hands-on experience with people facing the inequality you hope to address gives you a more holistic understanding of issues. I’ve also found that developing other skills, such as organization and leadership, have been imperative in my career. Organizations fighting inequality need a whole spectrum of skill sets.

Why should students (or anyone) care about inequalities or injustices they don’t experience themselves?

Did you know that students from low-income families are seven times more likely to drop out of high school than those from high-income families? Or that under four percent of Tennessee’s African-American students graduated as “college-ready”? These facts should compel anyone to care about inequalities.

Additional Resources for Social Justice Issues

Economic Inequality
Center for American Progress

CAP addresses a range of injustices, many of which can be traced to economic inequality.

Economic Hardship Reporting Project

This nonpartisan nonprofit exposes issues of poverty and economic imbalance through immersive journalism.

University of Texas Inequality Project

This long-term research study looks at how inequality has shifted across the globe due to industry and development.

Racial Inequality
Center for Community Change

CMC addresses the discrimination felt by low-income minorities by fighting alongside local communities for fair policies and legislation.

Grassroots Leadership

This nonprofit focuses on the injustices within the criminal justice system, specifically for-profit private prisons, which disproportionately affect minority and immigration populations.

National Immigration Law Center

NILC’s mission is to protect the rights of immigrants who don’t have the funds to combat unjust systems.

Global Inequality
International Monetary Fund

The IMF published a comprehensive study in 2015 titled “Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective.”

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

OECD is a multinational organization focused on erasing global inequalities by undertaking large-scale research projects.

Oxfam

This global organization seeks to reduce poverty, hunger, injustice and inequality in countries around the world.

Gender & Sexuality
Equality Now

Fighting for the rights of women and girls across the globe, Equality Now takes on issues spanning reproductive rights to political participation.

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network

With a focus on primary and secondary education, GLSEN strives to ensure every child, regardless of sexual orientation, feels empowered and equal.

National Gay & Lesbian Task Force

As the first civil rights organization for LGBT individuals, the Task Force advocates for justice and equality for its constituents.

Inequality in Health
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

This nonprofit advocates for the legal rights of Americans with mental health issues.

Population Health Forum

Operating out of the University of Washington, the Population Health Forum highlights the economic, political and social inequalities affecting the health of U.S. citizens.

World Health Organization

WHO works with national governments to increase the performance of health systems and make them more affordable and accessible.