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Building a College-Educated America Requires Closing Racial Gaps in Attainment

Students line up to receive their diplomas during a graduation ceremony at sunset in Santa Monica, California, June 2013.

For the first time ever, half of the young adults in the United States have earned a college degree. From 2009 to 2019, the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who earned an associate degree or higher rose from 41 percent to 50 percent. In 2017, the last time the Center for American Progress evaluated national attainment, degree attainment was just below the 50 percent mark. While hitting this milestone is good news and increases have occurred across demographic groups, there hasn’t been a great deal of progress in closing large and persistent racial equity gaps.

Closing these gaps must be a high priority for the Biden administration, states, and colleges as they seek to build a more educated nation. Over the past decade, Black and Latino young adults experienced the most dramatic growth in attainment; but they also started off with the lowest attainment rates compared with other racial or ethnic groups, and they remain the least likely to earn a college degree. Moreover, the attainment rates among Black and Latino men are even lower.

These alarming equity gaps in attainment exist because of structural inequities in our society, including the education system, which consistently fails to serve Black and Latino adults. Unfortunately, the pandemic is expected to only exacerbate these educational gaps. This spring semester, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 4.5 percent, with larger declines among Black, Latino, and Native American populations. Community college enrollment took the hardest hit, especially among men, while enrollment at for-profit institutions increased throughout the pandemic.

Previous administrations have focused on increasing overall attainment, but that hasn’t proved effective at tackling racial equity gaps. The Biden administration’s pledge to advance racial equity in postsecondary education is a perfect opportunity to dedicate resources to close attainment gaps by race and gender. For example, the U.S. Department of Education should explore options for conducting equity audits to identify barriers to completion at the institutional level, as well as ways that colleges can improve outcomes for racially underrepresented students. Congress and states, meanwhile, should help close attainment gaps by eliminating funding disparities at institutions serving larger proportions of students of color. Finally, the new administration should seek to reengage students who left college without a degree by convening a commission of experts to identify the barriers contributing to student withdrawal—and making its findings public.

This column provides an update on attainment increases over the past decade and reveals how racial equity gaps persist. For this analysis, degree attainment is defined as the percentage of adults between the ages of 25 and 34 who have earned at least an associate degree or higher. This reflects an age range when people can expect to maximize the economic benefits of a degree over a longer period. CAP analyzed 2009 and 2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS), which does not report attainment data for Native American adults, disaggregate among Asian American subpopulations, or report the attainment of postsecondary certificates.

It is important to put the change in attainment rates over that decade in context. For example, the population of young adult Latinos with a college degree rose 11 percentage points, compared with a 9 percentage point surge for white young adults. These increases may sound similar, but in fact, the change for Latinos is much more dramatic, because this demographic’s attainment rate was only 19 percent a decade ago, compared with 49 percent for whites. Indeed, Latinos experienced nearly a 60 percent jump in attainment, which represents an additional 1.3 million college-educated Latinos. Similarly, the percentage of Black men with a degree rose from 23 percent to 35 percent during this time frame, a jump of 50 percent that represents more than half a million additional Black men with a degree. These shifts represent a great deal of hard work on the part of individual students and their families to overcome significant barriers to earning a college degree. They also reflect some additional success on the part of the colleges and universities serving the students.

Still, there is much more work to be done by policymakers and institutions to allow these populations to share equally in the American dream, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Latino and Black adults have the largest attainment growth but remain the least likely to earn a college degree

Since 2000, Latino undergraduate enrollment at degree-granting institutions has increased more than that of other racial or ethnic groups. Latinos are also the largest foreign-born group and are projected to be the third-fastest-growing population in the United States. Their rising success translates into Latino adults having a nearly 60 percent increase in attainment—the largest growth of other racial or ethnic groups. (see Table 1) If this rate of change continues, almost half (49 percent) of Latino adults will be college-educated by 2029—an encouraging projection for Latino attainment. Understanding why Latino adults have experienced such substantial progress, at least before the pandemic, is a topic worthy of examination, especially in states with sizable Latino populations and postsecondary enrollment—for example, California, Florida, New York, and Texas.

Yet despite Latino adults having the largest attainment growth, they remain the least likely racial or ethnic group to earn a college degree. In fact, the share of Latino adults with a college degree (31 percent) trails the attainment rate of white adults by 27 percentage points. Since 2009, the Latino-white attainment gap has only slightly narrowed, closing by 2.5 percentage points. Also concerning are growing gaps by gender. Latino men remain the least likely to obtain a degree, at 26 percent, and the gap between Latina women and Latino men is widening.

Table 1

Meanwhile, since 2009, Black degree attainment has increased by more than 30 percent—the second-largest attainment growth of other racial or ethnic groups, translating to 978,000 more college-educated Black adults. If Black adults stay on that trajectory, half of them will be college-educated by 2029—an encouraging projection. But a large equity gap remains between Black and white degree attainment. The share of Black adults with a college degree (38 percent) lags the attainment of white adults by 19 percentage points, and the Black-white attainment gap only narrowed by 0.1 percentage points from 2009 to 2019. It is, however, encouraging that the gap between Black women and men has narrowed from 11 percentage points in 2009 to 6 percentage points in 2019. In fact, Black men have seen one of the greatest growths among all groups, with an 11.7 percentage point change.

Reengaging students who left college without a degree can help improve attainment

Students who leave college without a degree are wasting time in school since they are not getting the workforce benefit of a postsecondary credential. These students are also less likely than college completers to repay their student loan debt. The story is even more alarming among Black adults who do not finish college: More than half of Black noncompleters default on their student loans, compared with 3 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders and 13 percent of associate degree-holders who are Black. One way to close these equity gaps is to reengage students who do not complete.

In 2019, nearly 17 percent of young adults, more than 7.5 million in total, left college without a degree. (see Figure 1) The issue of “some college, no degree” hits across racial groups, but the disparities are higher among Black and Latino adults. More than 22 percent of Black adults and nearly 18 percent of Latino adults leave college without a degree, compared with about 16 percent of their white peers and only 9 percent of Asian adults.

Figure 1

If the entire population of adults who left college without a credential in 2019 received a degree, more than two-thirds (67 percent) of the population would be college-educated, translating to more than 30.3 million people. This achievement would also spill over by race, with more than 60 percent of Black adults and nearly half of Latino adults being college-educated. However, even if this scenario were to occur, disparities by race and gender would narrow but still exist. Black adults would trail white adults in attainment by 13 percentage points, and the Latino-white attainment gap would be 25 percentage points.

Conclusion

Despite some attainment progress across groups, large and persistent equity gaps remain. As the Biden administration works to build a more college-educated population, any measures to improve attainment should be designed above all to improve equity, targeting race and gender gaps and reengaging students who left college without a degree. The federal government and states share responsibility for equitably raising attainment. As mentioned earlier, Congress and states should close funding gaps at institutions serving larger proportions of students of color. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education should explore options for conducting equity audits to identify ways that colleges can improve outcomes for racially underrepresented students; and the administration should convene a commission of experts to identify the barriers contributing to student withdrawal and make its findings public.

Nearly two-thirds of jobs now require some form of postsecondary education, so a college degree is necessary to participate in today’s economy. Closing racial equity gaps would be an effective way to help meet the administration’s promise to “Build Back Better,” especially in the wake of the pandemic.

Marshall Anthony Jr. is a senior policy analyst for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.