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College is designed for student to finish in four years, but for many students that timeline is more of a pipedream. Just 41 percent of first-time, full-time freshman graduate four years after starting, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students of all shades and backgrounds struggle to graduate on time, but black students often take the longest to get to graduation day.
The median amount of time black students spend to obtain a bachelor’s degree is five years and four months – an entire year longer than the median for white students, according to a data analysis published this month by the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Researchers there examined data from the National Center for Education Statistics on nearly 20,000 college alumni who graduated between 2015 and 2016.
The median time for Latinx students was four years, eight months and for Asians it was four years.
Higher education experts say there could be a number of reasons for the additional time black students spend pursuing their degrees.
The education black students receive in elementary, middle and high schools may affect their ability to persist in college, says Natasha Warikoo, an expert on race and higher education. She’s also author of the book “The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities.”
“On average black students are attending schools that are of lower quality and more likely to be segregated,” said Warikoo, a sociology professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Many enter college ill-prepared for college-level work, she said.
And when black and Latinx students reach higher education, Warikoo said, they’re often at institutions that offer fewer resources, such as community colleges or the less-well-funded campuses of state university systems.
Institutions with an abundance of resources are usually very selective and academically competitive. In recent years, a number of elite schools have boosted the number of black students they enroll, but many still have just a sprinkling of these students on campus. In fall 2018, for example, Harvard University’s entering class had a black enrollment of 14.5 percent, but the University of California at Berkeley’s freshman population was just 3.1 percent black.
“I think about those colleges that have more resources and the role that they can play in terms of admitting more underrepresented students,” said Warikoo. “Admit more black students.”
Black students may also have less time to study once in college.
Students could be taking longer to graduate “because they’re working part time or full time,” said Marissa Navarro, a co-author of the report and a special assistant for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. “When you’re working over 40 hours a week and then you’re trying to take as many classes as you can, but still be successful in those classes, it’s going to take longer for you.”
The ramifications for staying in school longer can penetrate for years to come. The most difficult one may be the financial cost.
“The longer you’re in college, the more debt you’re acquiring,” said Warikoo. “One more year of college is one less year working. That’s lost income.”
The Center for American Progress report notes that the average loan amount for black borrowers was $36,900, the highest for any racial group.
Being in school comes with a lot to juggle, such as tests, internships and just everyday classes, Navarro said.
“If we did more to help these students, then it would be less responsibility for them and it would help them to finish quicker,” she said.
This story about black students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.