Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox
One way to look at inequality in America is to notice how people of different races and ethnicities get sorted into different colleges. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 percent of all black college students attend just four colleges, according to research by the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. They’re not the state’s most selective institutions such as University of Virginia in Charlottesville, College of William and Mary or Virginia Tech. Instead, large numbers of black students attend Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth universities.
This segregated sorting in higher education is somewhat understandable. Black students are less likely to apply and be admitted to the state’s top tier schools. Black Virginians were more likely to have grown up in poor neighborhoods and attended elementary, middle and high schools with other poor students, less experienced teachers and fewer resources. Still the racial concentration in just a few institutions is striking, given that Virginia has sizable black populations in many counties throughout the eastern half of the state and a wide choice of colleges and universities.
But another way to think about educational inequality is to analyze how students fare at the same institution. The Urban Institute researchers calculated graduation rates by race and ethnicity in Virginia and Connecticut and found that white and Asian students graduate at higher rates than black and Latino students at most colleges. At some colleges in Virginia, the gap exceeds 30 percentage points. For example, 50 percent of white and Asian students obtained their four-year bachelor’s degrees within six years at the Jefferson College of Health Science in Roanoke (now part of Radford University) compared to only 18 percent of blacks and Latinos. At all four-year universities and colleges in Virginia, the average graduation gap between whites and Asians and blacks and Latinos is 16 percentage points. Black and Latino students do graduate at higher rates than white and Asian students at two historically black Virginia universities, Hampton and Virginia State. The gaps are smaller in Connecticut and at two-year colleges but they still exist.
“Institutional leaders need to think strongly about the way their rhetoric does not align with the actual institutional policies in who gains access to and graduates from their college,” said Dominique Baker, an assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, who reviewed the Urban Institute study, in an e-mail interview. “I mean, why does a student’s lack of financial resources predict the gap in graduation likelihood between Black and white students?”
Related: Behind the Latino college degree gap
“Understanding Equity Gaps in College Graduation” was written by Erica Blom and Tomas Monarrez at the Urban Institute and published in January 2020. The authors focused on Virginia and Connecticut because those are the two states where they were able to obtain detailed data for students but it is likely that the findings are similar nationally. The researchers looked at data from all public and private nonprofit universities in Virginia and from all public and two private institutions in Connecticut that volunteered to participate. (The Urban Institute received funding from Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic corporation, which is also among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)
A common rebuttal to this simple calculation of graduation rates by race and ethnicity is to point out that black and Latino students generally have more obstacles in college than their white and Asian peers. They often arrive at college with lower test scores and high school grades. Students with weaker academic preparation might be more likely to fail classes and drop out of college. Black and Latino students also often encounter more financial hardship in college and drop out for economic reasons.
This is where the Urban Institute analysis gets really interesting. One might hope if we could adjust for these factors — academic preparation and family income — that racial graduation gaps would disappear. Blacks and whites with the same smarts and money ought to be graduating at the same rates, right? The researchers at the Urban Institute were able to dig back into college application and school records and see students’ SAT scores and high school grades. For the state of Virginia, they had access to family income, which was listed on college applications. For Connecticut, they could see if the student came from a family poor enough to quality for federal Pell grants.
Then they mathematically adjusted the graduation rates, comparing students with the same academic preparation and family income or poverty status at each college. In most cases, the gaps plummet by more than half. But there are still differences along race and ethnicity at many institutions. At one Virginia community college, Paul D. Camp in Franklin, there is still a 20 percentage point difference between the graduation rates of whites and Asians and those of blacks and Latinos. What this means is that even among students with the same high school grades and family income, a white student is, on average, 20 percentage points more likely to get a two-year associate degree than a black student. The graduation gap at the Jefferson College of Health Science, which I referred to above, falls from above 30 percentage points to around 15 percentage points — still significant.
Blom and her co-author didn’t have enough data to adjust for other factors that could explain the graduation differences. Black and Latino families often have less savings and fewer assets to fall back on. But the researchers didn’t know students’ wealth. It’s possible that the adjusted graduation gaps would further close to zero if family wealth were factored in. Perhaps a black student with the same academic preparation, family income and wealth, does graduate college at the same rate as a white student. We don’t know.
In the research literature, this “unexplained” gap in college attainment is often explained as racial discrimination or institutional racism. But the Urban Institute report does not make such accusations. When I talked with Erica Blom, one of the authors, she applauded education leaders in Virginia and Connecticut for wanting to understand their equity gaps and opening their student data records to this kind of scrutiny. “I hope that our findings spur institutions to do some reflection on whether there is more they could do to help all students succeed,” she said.
Blom pointed out that Pasadena City College in California was able to reduce graduation inequities after it scrutinized its student data and changed dozens of policies. The college’s efforts were explained at length in a story published September 2019 in Politico. For example, biology professors at the college erased a rule banning late assignments or makeup exams. That helped accommodate low-income students who have to juggle work and school. The director of professional development formed faculty book clubs to discuss Claude Steele’s “Whistling Vivaldi,” a book about “stereotype threat,” which is a psychological theory about how minorities perform worse in environments where people like them traditionally don’t succeed.
The bar charts below show the raw and adjusted graduation gaps for institutions in Virginia and Connecticut. For Virginia, the researchers were able to reveal the names of the colleges, but not for Connecticut.
Addressing these graduation gaps will probably be expensive and involve more financial aid, tutoring and advising for students. “If the will or money is not present, it is difficult to see large-scale structural change occurring,” Baker said by e-mail.
We have a problem in America. Only 21 percent of blacks and 15 percent of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree or more, compared with 35 percent of whites and 54 percent of Asians. If we want more college-educated Americans, we need to do something about it.
This story about college graduation rates by race and ethnicity was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.