Lingering Gaps in Higher Education by Income, Race and Gender

Low-income, Black, Hispanic and American Indian students attended postsecondary institutions at lower rates than higher income, White, and Asian students in 2010, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

While the percentage of those enrolled in college or graduate school increased from 2006 to 2010 for each ethnicity or race, the NCES study shows varying enrollment rates for different groups of 18-24 year olds, 66 percent of Asians are enrolled, 47 percent of Whites, 45 percent of individuals with two or more races/ethnic groups, 39 percent of Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, 37 percent of Blacks, 31 percent of Hispanics, 28 percent of American Indians and 19 percent of Alaska Natives.

The study notes that a 17 percent of Hispanics born outside the United States were enrolled in college in 2010, compared to 38 percent of Hispanics born in the United States.

“Hispanics born outside the United States may not have had access to the same educational opportunities as Hispanics born in the United States,” according to the study.

In observing trends in higher education access and success, the study attributes low rates of attainment and persistence to the following factors:

  • Delayed entry into postsecondary education after high school•Weak academic preparation for college
  • Part-time enrollment and interruptions in enrollment
  • Low levels of interaction with faculty
  • Little participation in school activities
  • Working more than 15 hours per week while enrolled
  • Beginning postsecondary education at a 2-year community college, rather than a 4-year institution

The study also cites previous research that shows that of students with particular demographic information, for example, Pell Grant recipients are more likely to complete their degrees in a shorter time period than non-recipients.

More research on the effects of remediation on persistence and attainment as the study cites conflicting research.

Gender Gap 

The study also shows that for three decades female students attended college or graduate school at higher rates than males, yet of young adults ages 25 to 34, males showed higher employment rates and higher median earning levels.

  • Since 1980, a lower percentage of males (39 percent) than females (47 percent) 18- to 24-year-old were enrolled either in college or graduate school.  
  • For young adults ages 25 to 34  whose highest level of attainment was at least a bachelor’s degree, 85 percent were employed in 2010 overall, with a higher employment rate for males (89 percent) than for females (82 percent). 
  • Males earned on average $9,100 more than females among young adults ages 25 to 34 whose highest level of attainment was at least a bachelor’s degree, and among all racial/ethnic groups.

In addition to college enrollment differences, there are gaps in postsecondary attainment for males and females. 

Among first-time students seeking bachelor’s degrees who started full time at a 4-year college in 2004, a higher percentage of females than males completed bachelor’s degrees within 6 years – a pattern that held across all racial/ethnic groups.


The study also shows young adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree in a STEM field have higher median earnings, with STEM graduates at $58,200, which is about $7,900 higher than the overall average for young adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree in any field.

Male earnings ($60,400) for STEM graduates exceeded those for females by about $8,200. This pattern held for all other ethnicities and races.

Despite the gaps by degree type, the study confirms that having a postsecondary degree increases earning level. The median annual earnings for young adults ages 25 to 34 in 2010 who worked full time throughout a full year were $36,200. However, the median annual earnings for those with a bachelor’s or higher degree were $50,300 compared to the median earnings for young adults who had not completed high school was $21,100.