Racial gap in graduation rates means minorities have fewer opportunities to earn high salaries as adults
By Jamelle Bouie
Midway through his speech on education at the University of Texas in Austin, President Obama made a somewhat surprising claim, “Over a third of America’s college students and over half of our minority students don’t earn a degree, even after six years.”
It’s not that anyone is surprised by the existence of racial disparities in higher education, as much as it is that this is a particularly large disparity. In 2008, there were more than 2.5 million African Americans and 2.1 million Hispanics enrolled in degree-granting institutions across the country. But as President Obama described, those students have a less than stellar graduation rate; according to two recent studies by The Education Trust — an independent, non-profit education research firm — only 40 percent of African Americans and 49 percent of Hispanics who go to four-year institutions graduate within six years, compared to 60 percent of whites. At nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities studied, fewer than half of minority students graduate, and at one-third, that number drops to below 35 percent.
There are more than a few reasons for the abysmal graduation rates for minority students. Much the gap is tied to educational disparities at the primary and secondary school level; minority students are more likely to have attended high poverty, low-resource schools, and are less likely to have the skills necessary to succeed in a college environment. Likewise, there’s evidence that many minority students are “mismatched” and either attend colleges beyond their skill level, or attend colleges below their skill level and without the resources necessary to support them. Indeed, if the Education Trust report is any indication, minority students tend to succeed most at institutions that invest heavily in supporting them throughout their collegiate careers.
Beyond that, college has simply become more expensive. Among all institutions, according to a 2008 report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, there’s been a steady rise in tuition costs since the beginning of the decade. On average, tuition has increased by more than twice the rate of inflation. And in recent years, the recession has exacerbated that effect; in 2009, tuition saw a 6.5 percent increase at public colleges, and a 4.4 percent increase at private colleges. In 2000, the average 4-year public institution charged $8,653 for tuition, fees and room and board. By 2009, that had grown to $15,213. And while most students receive some combination of federal grants and loans to account for the high sticker price of college, it’s still the case that overall, the average price of college at a four year institution is equal to more than a quarter of median family income.
Minority students are more likely to come from families without the resources to fully finance a college education, and as such, are more likely to suffer from the inevitable mismatch between financial aid and college costs.
And absent the funds to finance college, completion is much more difficult, which has unfortunate consequences down the road; without a degree, these students face a precipitous drop in lifetime earning potential. What’s more, this graduation gap hurts the country as a whole; to keep up with global competition, the United States needs to enroll and graduate as many students as possible. More than anything, our high graduation gap is a high impediment to future growth.
Closing the graduation gap is possible, but it requires a huge amount of time, money and patience; not only will colleges have to rethink their approach to educating minority students, but federal and state governments will have to rethink their approaches to providing financial aid, to say nothing of the independently difficult undertaking of improving our primary and secondary schools. For this undertaking, success is far off. But we don’t have much of a choice; closing the graduation gap — and improving education for everyone — is integral to keeping the United States as prosperous as possible.
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