Study: Wide Racial Gaps Persist in College Degree Attainment - Higher Education
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Study: Wide Racial Gaps Persist in College Degree Attainment

by Dominique Burns and LaMont Jones

Compared to White adults in the United States, Black adults are two-thirds as likely to hold a college degree and Latino adults are only half as likely – with both groups attaining degrees at a lower rate in 2016 than White adults did back in 1990.

So say research findings in a new report by The Education Trust, which is calling on policymakers at the states level to take action to reduce the racial disparities. Given data that indicates that degree attainment is a direct path to upward social mobility, it’s important for the gap to be closed as minorities continue to comprise a growing segment of the workforce, according to the nonprofit educational advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Dr. John B. King, Jr., President and CEO, The Education Trust

“If state leaders are serious about racial equity and reaching their goals to increase the number of college-educated residents in their states, they need to be honest about what their data are telling them about Black, Latino, and other racial or ethnic groups,” said Dr. Andrew H. Nichols, co-author of the two briefs in the report and senior director of higher education research and data analytics at Ed Trust.

Research highlights – gleaned from U.S. Census data from 41 states for Black adults and 44 states for Latino adults between the ages of 25 and 64 – include:

In 2016, while 47.1 percent of White adults had attained some form of college degree, only 30.8 percent of Blacks and 22.6 percent of Latinos had.

The states with the largest White-Black gaps were Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin; for White-Latino gaps, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Nebraska.

The states with the lowest degree attainment for Blacks were Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Wisconsin and West Virginia; for Latinos, they were Arkansas, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada and Oklahoma.

The states with the highest degree-attainment for Latinos were Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Virginia; for Blacks, they were Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico and Washington.

The states making the largest gains in degree attainment for Latinos were Florida, New York and Wyoming; for Blacks, Connecticut, North Carolina, Nebraska, Maryland, New Mexico and Virginia.

“These are dire statistics that say that institutions of higher education really need to build more capacity in this area,” said Dr. Jennifer Baszile, dean of student success and career development at Trinity College in Hartford, Ct. “Because of demographic realities on the horizon and already unfolding, we need to take this more seriously.”

And not just because demographic forecasts indicate that Black and Brown students will increasingly account for a growing share of the population on college campuses and in general, she told Diverse in a phone interview, “but because they are borrowers on student loans and the implications for the workforce.”

Dr. Jennifer Baszile, Dean of Student Success and Career Development, Trinity College

Numerous studies paint an urgent picture. By next year, about 65 percent of American jobs will require some form of college, compared with just 28 percent of jobs in 1973. Earning a college degree provides more job security, employment opportunities and higher wages. Higher levels of degree attainment also are associated with more widespread social benefits. This is especially important for Black and Latino Americans, who face systemic barriers that inhibit their opportunities for upward mobility. Additionally, increased levels of educational attainment associate directly with lower rates of crime and incarceration as well as better health, more volunteerism, higher levels of voting and political engagement, and greater issues charitable and philanthropic giving.

The topic was raised Monday during a forum about why the nation needs to improve college sponsored by Educational Testing Service, the American Council on Education and Diverse. Ed Trust president and CEO Dr. John B. King, Jr. said during a panel discussion at the National Center on Higher Education in D.C. that he was unsure whether free community college or state “promise” programs could help reduce degree-attainment disparities. Responding to a question, he urged funding institutional programs that specifically target underrepresented and vulnerable groups and that lower barriers such as access to food, affordable housing and daycare for children of student-parents and other problems that disproportionately impact students of color.

“That’s what it will take to deliver on the word ‘promise,’” said King.

Another panelist, Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire, also placed some responsibility on institutions of higher learning – some of whom say that so many underrepresented groups make the problem difficult for schools to effectively address their concerns individually.

Still, McGuire said, “What we expect is going to shape our outcomes. Given the challenges that our students face, what are we going to do to help them succeed?”

King addressed the question further in an interview with Diverse after the forum.

“Our job as institutions is to figure out, given the challenges that our students face, what are we doing to do to help them succeed. So you take a place like UC Riverside, [which] has a higher graduation rate for African-American students than peer institutions of the same size, same demographics. What is it that UC Riverside does differently? Well one of the things they do differently is that they’re very intentional in hiring diverse faculty, so that students of color see on campus educators that look like them. …That’s powerful.”

Placing the onus on schools as much as states – if not more so – was echoed by Baszile, who shared King’s skepticism that promise programs and free community college could significantly reduce the disparities

“With the exception of HBCUs and some committed in-state institutions, higher education has not really asked itself if the structures, the policies and practices serve today’s students,” said Baszile. “For a long time, higher education has been of the mindframe that access has been the primary focus of equity issues. Access and equity are not the same thing.”

Closing the racial disparity gaps is a critical and national “workplace-readiness issue,” especially as college costs continue to rise, Baszile added.

“It’s simply not ethical to continue having Black and Latino students coming into higher education, committing to the level of debt and having so little progress in degree attainment. And we will miss the opportunity in this moment if we simply say there is something wrong with the students. If we blame this on students, then we will have missed the mark. Institutions really have to look inward. And what we say at this moment will really have long-term implications in this global market for the entire nation.”

Tiffany Pennamon also contributed to this report.

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