Report Underscores Racial, Class Disparities in College Degree Attainment - Higher Education
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Report Underscores Racial, Class Disparities in College Degree Attainment

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Despite the increased emphasis placed in recent years on the importance of obtaining a college degree, deep disparities between rich and poor, minority and White students still persist when it comes to who goes to college as well as who finishes, new college completion figures released Thursday show.

Specifically, for high school graduates from the Class of 2009, 45 percent of students from higher income high schools had obtained a college degree within six years of graduation, compared to 24 percent of students from lower income schools—a difference of 21 percentage points.

102816_collegeThat statistic comes by way of the fourth annual “High School Benchmarks” report from the National Student Clearinghouse—a Herndon, Va.-based organization that, among other things, tracks student outcomes for high schools school districts that subscribe to its service.

The figures the clearinghouse released Thursday reveal a stark reality that frustrates efforts to contravene the notion that “demography is destiny” when it comes to college degree attainment.

The language of the report could easily lead one to conclude that the best way to ensure a successful college experience is for a student to go to a suburban high school with a lot of White kids whose parents are well off and not enroll in an urban high school with a lot of minority kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet.

For instance, after it delineates the disparities between the rates at which students from high-income versus low-income schools complete their degrees, the report notes that “the relationship of minority status of a school was equally strong.”

“Forty-eight percent of students with low minority high school students completed a college degree within six years, compared to only 28 percent from high minority schools,” the report states.

Location also seems to matter.

“Urban students lagged behind: 36 percent of students from urban schools completed a degree within six years of graduation, compared to 42 percent from rural schools and 45 percent from suburban schools,” the report states.

Scholars and policy experts offered an array of factors that lurk behind the dismal statistics.

Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Access Network, or NCAN, said the report shows that “there are still too many roadblocks along the path to college for too many low-income, first-generation students, many of them of color.”

DeBaun blamed lack of awareness about college-going and the availability of financial aid to academic programs in high school that lack rigor, “which leads to postsecondary academic struggles, or to simply believe that college is unobtainable or not for them.”

“Even when students matriculate, they face additional challenges related to affordability, a lack of on-campus support systems, and work and family pressures that can quickly derail their postsecondary success,” DeBaun said.

Dave Marcotte, professor of public administration and policy at American University, said one of the biggest detractors that low-income students face in college is the need to work.

“Kids with limited means have all kinds of demands on them when they go to college,” Macrotte said. “They can’t study the same way kids from wealthier backgrounds can.”

Another factor is that economically disadvantaged students often can’t afford to go to well-resourced schools that can help them when problems arise, and end up enrolling in institutions with poor graduation rates.

“When you have less money to go to school, you tend to choose schools that are the least expensive and closest to home, and those are the schools that have the least resources and support for students,” Marcotte said. “Those schools are less likely to result in graduation for many students, so you kind of got a sorting of poor kids into schools that have the poor outcomes.”

More affluent students, on the other hand, are more likely to attend private colleges and universities “that are gonna be there for you,” Marcotte said, whereas, at public institutions, “you’re on your own.”

Marcotte said offering information to students on which colleges are best to attend will only have a marginal effect, whereas putting more resources into colleges that are likely to serve poor and minority students is likely to have a bigger effect.

Danette Howard, chief strategy officer and senior vice president at Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that focuses on increasing degree attainment, said colleges and universities must do more to distribute aid based on need rather than merit at the expense of students with the greatest need.

“I think that institutions have an obligation to ensure that not all of their dollars are going toward merit aid but also being used to support those who do not have the financial means to attend their campuses,” Howard said.

Howard also stressed the need to make sure students are taking 15 credits per semester in order to boost their chances of graduating on time, versus allowing students to take 12 credits per semester—a course load that automatically turns a four-year degree into a five-year degree, barring any additional unforeseen circumstances.

DeBaun, of NCAN, said it’s important to support low-income students by way of college access and success programs. He noted that NCAN studies show that students served by college access and success programs enroll and complete college at rates that exceed those of their peers.

He cited statistics from NCAN’s Class of 2015 benchmark report that shows almost 70 percent of students enrolled in college in the first five months after high school graduation.

“On the completion side, 38.3 percent of students from the Class of 2009 obtained a degree by 2015, and 51.3 percent of these students who enrolled in the first year after high school went on to complete,” DeBaun wrote in an explanation to Diverse.

“We need more school districts and universities, especially public universities, to be intentional about the college enrollment and success outcomes of underserved students,” DeBaun said. “Whether it’s aligning curriculum, reducing remediation failure, waiving application fees, administering the SAT or ACT during the school day, or increasing FAFSA completion, we have a host of ways to improve college enrollment, persistence, and completion.”

Some institutions are, in fact, becoming more intentional about eliminating disparities in who completes college.

Lynnette Zelezny, provost and vice president for academic affairs and a professor of psychology at California State University, Fresno, said her university has set a goal to “close the college achievement gap to zero by 2025.”

She listed a series of strategies the university has adopted. They include working with nearby school districts and community colleges to “improve student preparedness and the college-going culture of our region.” The administration has also identified the fact that about a third of the student body is “food insecure” and, consequently, opened a university food pantry to meet its students’ basic needs.

Socially, Zelezny said Cal State Fresno is “building community and a sense of belonging for all students, particularly underrepresented first-generation students.” The institution is pursuing academic strategies as well.

“We are increasing opportunities for students to participate in high-impact practices like service learning, undergraduate research, and internships that make learning more relevant,” Zelezny said.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or you follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.

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