What’s Behind America’s Widening College Graduation Gap?

The number of students earning bachelor’s degrees is up, but between white and black students, the gains are unequal.
(Photo: Damon Hyland/Getty Images)
Mar 27, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Call it the stubborn gray cloud around a bright silver lining: At a time when the graduation rate of the nation’s public universities has improved significantly, says a new report, the gap between white students who earn bachelor’s degrees and African Americans who don’t has failed to budge—and in some cases has gotten worse.

At more than half of those four-year colleges and universities, the graduation gains among black students didn’t match those of their white peers, according to Rising Tide II: Do Black Students Benefit as Grad Rates Increase? from The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that advocates for children. At a third of the colleges where overall graduation rates went up, the rates of black students who earned diplomas fell or remained stagnant.

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“Those gains haven’t been large or fast enough to close gaps between black and white students,” wrote the authors of the study. “In fact, in many cases, these gaps have widened.”

The shortcoming is another warning sign that minority kids risk getting left behind at a time when roughly half of all well-paying jobs require some postsecondary school education or technical training. Most K–12 educators working in minority communities and the parents of their students have received the message that education is the key to a good life, but the leaky pipeline between freshman year of college and graduation day could leave some young people behind in the new economy.

“It’s not an encouraging finding,” Andrew Nichols, coauthor of the report and director of higher education research and data analytics at The Education Trust, told the policy journal Inside Higher Ed.

“It underscores the need to really dig into data and to look at the success of particular subgroups, not just at overall success,” he said. “We’re seeing improvements, but the improvements among black students have not occurred at a pace that enables institutions to close the gap.”

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The study, which examined graduation rates at 70 of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities, found that the graduation rate among white students spiked more than 5.3 percentage points, from 55.4 percent in 2003 to 60.7 percent in 2013. The rate for African American students over the same time period barely moved, from 38.2 to 40.3—an increase of only 2.1 percentage points.

Pedro Noguera, a sociologist, education policy professor, and director of the Center for the Study of School Transformation, said the study wasn’t a surprise, because public four-year universities tend to lack the support systems many students of color need. An African American student may have responsibilities his or her affluent peer does not: a job to help pay tuition, for example, or perhaps having to juggle school with taking care of a parent or a small child, Noguera said.

“A lot of it has to do with the colleges they’re going to,” he said. “If you’re going to a large public university, they have the worst [outcomes] for everybody, especially for students of color.”

But he also pointed to the nation’s public school system, where, 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation, black children largely attend schools that are separate and unequal. He emphasized systemic issues that shortchange black college-bound students, including crumbling buildings, poor-quality teachers, and a lack of guidance on getting into colleges that are good matches for them.

“We have to really look at what’s happening at the high school level,” Noguera said.

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Tyrone Howard, an education professor at UCLA and director of the university’s Black Male Institute, agrees. He said colleges can help get some undergraduates up to speed through remedial classes and some support, but “we can’t be expected to fix problems we didn’t create.”

If a school didn’t prepare a college-bound student for the rigors of college, “they get to a place like UCLA and they’re in for a huge awakening,” Howard said. “We throw the fault at the parents and at the students. But schools have to own up to their part of the bargain” and get African Americans ready for what college will present to them.

Howard said he’d like to see corporations pitch in to improve failing schools. “This is their future workforce,” he said. But ultimately, the graduation gap between black and white students won’t get better until there’s political will among affluent whites to help make things better for black high-school students.

“I think we’ve got to change that thinking” that well-off whites have no skin in the game, Howard said. “People don’t see that connected to their reality. Until they see, this will continue to be a problem.”