ACE Supplementary Report Paints a “Stark Picture” of Higher Education’s Racial Inequities - Higher Education


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ACE Supplementary Report Paints a “Stark Picture” of Higher Education’s Racial Inequities

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The American Council on Education (ACE) came out with a supplemental report expanding on its 2019 Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education project, a data-driven deep dive into racial disparities in colleges and universities.

The report examines over 150 different indicators, drawing on data from 16 principle sources, including the ACT, the SAT, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) and others. It offers further in-depth research on key topics from last year’s report, like pre-college academic experiences, faculty and staff, graduate and professional education, postsecondary career and technical education, tribal colleges and undergraduate debt.

“We want this report to get in the hands of administrators, practitioners, faculty at colleges and universities, if to do nothing else, to spark their interest in asking the question, what does this look like on my campus?” said Dr. Jonathan Turk, ACE’s director of research. “What does student body diversity look like on my campus? What is the relationship between the racial and ethnic makeup of my student body to my faculty? What does graduation and success look like for my students by race and ethnicity and by gender on my campus?”

Nationally, the report paints a “fairly stark picture” of an increasingly diverse student body held back by deep racial inequities.

One concerning trend was that, while most students take out loans to pay for college, Black students borrowed more and at higher rates. In 2015–16, about 86% of Black students needed to take out a loan, versus about 69% of all students who earned bachelor’s degrees. They also borrowed roughly $4,300 more than their peers.

And that debt sticks around. Research on students who first enrolled in 2003, shows that 12 years later, on average, bachelor’s degree earners still owed about 60% of their student debt. For Latinx and Black borrowers, those averages were even higher, about 70% and 105%, respectively.

“Just think about what level of systems failure has to occur, for after 12 years, to owe more than what they actually originally borrowed,” Turk said. “Because that’s the case for completers. We’re even talking about folks who have earned their degrees … It’s important to us that policymakers are aware of numbers like that.”

Students of color are also attending the kinds of schools where they’re more likely to accrue debt. The report found that Black, Latinx and indigenous students enroll at for-profit colleges at higher rates than White and Asian students.

For example, among associate degree earners in 2015–16, about 20% of Black students, nearly 16% of Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders, 14% of American Indian or Alaska Natives, and about 11% of Latinx students finished their degrees at for-profit colleges, compared with about 9% of White students and about 8% of Asian students. At for-profit institutions, more than 86% of bachelor’s degree recipients borrowed an average of $40,583 to pay for college, at least $10,000 more than the averages for non-profit private and public four-year institutions.

“We do know if you attend a for-profit institution, you’re much more likely to borrow and you’re much more likely to pay the larger debt burden than the students who will enroll in other sectors,” said Morgan Taylor, senior research analyst at ACE. “So, this really is a problem, particularly if historically marginalized students of color are the ones who have greater likelihood of attending these institutions.”

Meanwhile, these students are starting at a disadvantage. The report points to entrenched inequities in K-12 education that leave underrepresented students underprepared for college.

Black and Latinx students were more likely to attend high-poverty schools. A study from a fall 2009 cohort found Black students underrepresented in Advanced Placement (AP) and dual enrollment courses. Data from 2015 showed about 64% of all Black high school seniors were in the lowest achievement level for math and about 48% were in the lowest achievement level for reading, regardless of family income. In 2019, over half of Black students didn’t meet any of the SAT’s benchmarks for college and career readiness, compared to 30% of SAT takers overall.

“When you look across the report at all of the chapters, the outcomes in terms of progress, college readiness, student loan debt, for Black students in particular, they don’t make you feel good,” Taylor said. “They just don’t. They’re not good outcomes. Higher education and the K-12 system are disproportionately failing our Black students.”

But Taylor saw a few glimmers of hope in the data. One of them is that almost half of Black high school students reported they were “very sure” they’d go to college to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Among students in the lowest income quintile, Black high school students were the most likely to the express that certainty.

“Despite facing all of these barriers, there’s still that desire, that hope that’s there,” she said. “This is fuel for the fire of why we need to help … increase access to a rigorous K-12 education. They want to go [to college], and they want to do well. So, we need to be able to break down the structural barriers that are there to help them succeed.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at sweissman@diverseeducation.com.

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