Report: Bridging Racial Gaps Is Crucial to Increasing College Degrees

By Emily Isaacman, NASFAA Communications Intern

A new pair of reports from the Education Trust (Ed Trust), a nonprofit organization that advocates for education equity, details how failure to address nationwide racial gaps in college completion could undermine states’ goals to boost degree attainment.

Black and Latino adults today are less likely to have a college degree than whites adults were more than 25 years ago, co-authors Andrew Nichols and Oliver Schak wrote, but population growth among black and Latino Americans is outpacing that of their white counterparts.

“For states to really be able to attain their goals and increase attainment going forward, they need to make improvements among people of color,” said Schak, senior policy and research associate for higher education at Ed Trust.

This disconnect could soon become problematic. A study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that 65 percent of American jobs will require some college credential by 2020.  

Degree completion yields a range of personal and societal benefits, the researchers wrote, including higher wages, lower unemployment, less crime and incarceration, and less reliance on public assistance programs.

A college degree could also help black and Latino adults overcome institutional barriers to their progress.

“Earning a college degree is the most certain pathway toward upward social mobility,” Ed Trust said in a statement.

For a number of reasons, including limited access to financial aid, the reports demonstrate that this pathway is not being fulfilled.

Compared to white Americans with a college degree nationwide, black adults ages 25 to 64 fell 16.3 percent behind, and Latinos lagged by 24.5 percent.

The gaps were more prominent at higher education levels, which are associated with better wages and employment prospects.

The researchers went on to analyze degree attainment at the state-level “to highlight where change is needed most.” Most states fell within 5 percentage points of the national averages, but some states had bigger differences than others.

Black attainment ranged from a high of 40.3 percent in New Mexico to a low of 20.7 percent in Louisiana, and Latino attainment ranged from 36.5 percent in New Hampshire to 12.7 percent in Idaho.

Schak said a number of factors, including quality of primary and secondary education, influences degree attainment, but financial aid is a key component.

“Most students, broadly, face a gap between their financial need and what they receive in grants and scholarships,” Schak said. “But there’s quite a bit of a disparity when it comes to black and Latino adults.”

A growing body of research has documented the disparity for black and Latino students when it comes to student debt.

Black and Latino students are more likely than white students to default on their loans, according to a 2007 study by the American Institutes for Research, but default rates are uniformly lower for those who complete a degree.

Evidence of a disparity particularly between black and white college students has only grown with time.

A 2015 report by Demos found that black students borrow more than other students for the same degrees. In 2016, a report published by the Brookings Institution found black students owe thousands more than their white peers immediately upon graduating from college. And a report published by the Center for American Progress in the fall went so far as to describe the situation as a crisis for black college students, noting that 12 years after entering college, nearly half of black students who started in 2003-04 had defaulted on their loans.

When they broke down degree attainment by ethnicity, the Ed Trust researchers found that Latino immigrants, who are typically ineligible for in-state tuition and financial aid, are less likely to have a college degree than Latinos born in America.

Incarcerated individuals, who are disproportionately black, represent another minority population prohibited from Pell Grants and other forms of financial aid.

For eligible students, especially those who are the first in their families to pursue college, Schak said simplifying the application and award process can help make financial aid — and completion — closer in reach.  

“All of that can help students access college,” Schak said. “And ultimately obtain a degree.”


Publication Date: 6/19/2018

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