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Listen: Racial gaps in college degrees are widening, just when states need them to narrow, by Stephanie Daniel
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DENVER — Brandon Navejas earned a nearly perfect grade-point average at his inner-city high school, even as he simultaneously racked up a year’s worth of credits at a community college in subjects including physics, astronomy, trigonometry and algebra.

A wrestler, he qualified for the state tournament, training in a gym where he and his teammates occasionally fell against the screws that stuck out from the walls; he couldn’t help comparing it with the top-rate facilities and equipment in the better-funded suburban schools where they competed.

On top of these things, he worked 40 hours a week at his grandfather’s taqueria to support himself and his mother after his father died last year.

“We had to pay for our rent and pay for our bills. And I understood my mom wasn’t there yet, but I was strong enough, and I just had to do that for us.”

Brandon Navejas plans to enroll at the University of Colorado Boulder in the fall, majoring in aerospace engineering. “I never let my environment or anything discourage me,” he says. “I just wish everybody had the same equal opportunity.” Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

Despite his record of academic, athletic and personal accomplishment, however, when it was time to get a college degree, the odds were against him.  

While the overall proportion of Americans with higher educations has been slowly increasing, the proportions who are Black, Native American or Hispanic — like Navejas — are falling further behind, or staying no better than level.

The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary credentials nationwide has been rising, up from 38 percent to 45 percent since 2008, according to the Lumina Foundation, which tracks this. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.) The figure is through 2018, the most recent year for which this data is available.

But the gap between the proportion of white Americans with degrees and Black Americans with degrees hasn’t narrowed during this period; it’s gotten wider, increasing from 18 percentage points to 20 percentage points.  

Hispanics remain roughly 25 percentage points behind whites, a difference almost unchanged since 2008. And the divide between whites and Native Americans has grown during that time, from 24 percentage points to 31 percentage points. (Asians are the most likely to have earned degrees; more than two-thirds of Asians age 25 to 34 have them.)  

Related: The pandemic is speeding up the mass disappearance of men from college

It’s a problem with implications beyond equity and fairness. Several states are recognizing that, unless they can propel more people through college who have been less likely to go and to finish, they can’t meet their goals for increasing the proportion of their populations with degrees — or be able to fill jobs requiring a college education.

“It is incredibly important to be narrowing rather than expanding those attainment gaps,” said Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, who called the disparities “startlingly large.”

“There’s a moral imperative, but also an economic imperative here — real dollars-and-cents reasons for society to close those gaps.”

Brandon Navejas with Zulema Sierra at the Denver Scholarship Foundation, an independent nonprofit that helped him find the money he needed to go to college. Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

Comparatively low levels of college education among racial and ethnic minority and low-income Americans cost the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion a year in forgone earnings, consumer spending and tax revenue combined with potential savings on social services, according to an analysis released in May by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

There’s fear that these existing educational disparities will be made even worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, whose aftereffects are likely to last for years.

The racial degree gulf in Colorado is among the nation’s largest, Lumina figures show. The state has been importing highly educated talent drawn by its growing tech sector, propelling an increase in the overall proportion of its population with degrees. But, at the same time, Black, Hispanic, Native American and low-income Colorado high school graduates have been going on to college at lower rates than white and Asian ones, the state’s Department of Higher Education conceded in the spring. Hispanics are 41 percentage points less likely than whites to have a credential beyond high school, Blacks 28 percentage points less likely and Native Americans 35 percentage points less likely.

“There’s a moral imperative, but also an economic imperative here — real dollars-and-cents reasons for society to close those gaps.”

Mamie Voight, interim president, Institute for Higher Education Policy

The influx of educated workers “made us lazy or at least not attentive to the need to make sure our own students were getting those degrees,” said Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

“You can’t grow the economy you envision unless you change that reality,” Brough said. “You don’t have the companies if you don’t have the workers. That’s how it works. It’s that simple.”

Importing educated workers is a “very sloppy” way to prepare for future workforce needs, said Jeffrey Zax, an economics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Ryan Ross, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and inclusion for the Colorado Community College System. Unlike their higher-income classmates, lower-income and racial and ethnic minority students are often dealing with unseen problems such as not having a regular place to live or food to eat, he says. Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

“The politicians have looked at the state and said we have a very highly educated workforce; we can sort of ignore the fact that we poached that education from elsewhere, and we’re not actually serving our own children very well,” Zax said.

Now Colorado is beginning to confront this problem. It’s increasing state aid for schools and will change the formula by which the money is distributed, beginning in the fall, when more will go to help low-income students. There are also efforts to help people from underrepresented groups who do end up at college stay there. At Metropolitan State University of Denver, or MSU, for example, low-income and racial and ethnic minority students this summer are taking an online “success seminar” to teach them time management and study skills as part of a new program called Pathways to Possible.  

Related: How a decline in community college students is a big problem for the economy

The state in June empowered four-year public universities to award associate degrees to students who earned at least 70 credits on their way to bachelor’s degrees before dropping out, meaning they’ll at least have some kind of a credential. Nearly 680,000 Coloradans, and 36 million Americans, have spent some time in college but have no degree, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports; low-income, first generation students are four times more likely to drop out of college after their first year than their wealthier classmates whose parents completed higher educations, according to the First Generation Foundation.

“That’s just not right,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “I don’t know how we’ve gotten away with doing that for all of these years.”

Unlike their higher-income classmates, some of those low-income students are dealing with unseen problems such as not having enough food to eat or a regular place to live, said Ryan Ross, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and inclusion for the Colorado Community College System.

“I never let my environment or anything discourage me from pursuing what I want to do. I just wish everybody had the same equal opportunity.”

Brandon Navejas, a high school graduate from Denver who is going to college

“And when they get into a classroom and they’re tired or sleepy, they’re hungry — they’re not focused. Sometimes the assumption is, ‘You’re not a great student.’ Actually, they’re a great student, but they’re living a horrible life.”

The racial divide between who gets a college education and who doesn’t, said Paccione — a former teacher and onetime state representative — has remained stubbornly large. “This is not new,” she said.

And the need to close it is intensifying.

Colorado is “importing a lot of folks,” Paccione said. But “we need more software engineers. We need more health care workers. We need more cybersecurity folks. We have one of the biggest space industries. So let’s grow our own.”

Thanks to help from the independent, nonprofit Denver Scholarship Foundation, and money a tenacious advisor there scrounged up from other sources, Brandon Navejas will enroll at CU Boulder in the fall, majoring in aerospace engineering with plans to get a master’s degree and ultimately become an astronaut.

Related: Flagship universities fail to enroll Black and Latino high school graduates from their states

He said that, although he overcame them, there are far more obstacles in front of students like him than white students and students from families with higher incomes.

“I never let my environment or anything discourage me from pursuing what I want to do,” said Navejas, who is 18. “I just wish everybody had the same equal opportunity.”

Only 13 percent of children from the lowest-income families earn bachelor’s degrees by the time they’re 24, compared to 62 percent of those from the highest-income families, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

“The politicians have looked at the state and said we have a very highly educated workforce; we can sort of ignore the fact that we poached that education from elsewhere and we’re not actually serving our own children very well.”

Jeffrey Zax, economics professor, University of Colorado Boulder

It’s not that lower-income and Black and Hispanic Americans don’t aspire to college; 81 percent of Hispanics and 74 percent of Blacks agree that education beyond high school promises a good return on the investment, a survey by the think tank New America found.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that many people are saying, ‘My life will be great if I just have a high school degree,’ ” Zax said.

Nor is the imbalance necessarily about academic merit. Tenth graders from the highest-income families who score in the bottom half of math tests in high school are nonetheless more likely to finish college than their classmates from the lowest-income families who score in the top half, the Georgetown Center says.  

Victoria Torres plans to go to college in the fall. For her, getting a degree “is like the white picket fence dream that all immigrant children come with.” Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

Disadvantages based on income have now been magnified by the pandemic, which also exposed how Americans with higher educations could largely work from home while those without them were laid off or labored on in ways that left them vulnerable to Covid.

“We’ve seen maybe a peek behind the curtain, and we can’t possibly like what we saw,” Paccione said.

Black and Hispanic primary and secondary students fell farther behind in school last year  than white students and were less likely to have attended classes in person, have contact with teachers or have the internet access they needed for remote learning, the consulting firm McKinsey reported. Their parents were also more likely to have lost their jobs and burned through savings, McKinsey said.

Dramatic declines in enrollment at community colleges since the pandemic began have mostly come among first-generation, low-income and underrepresented minority students, The College Board says. About 30 percent of higher education institutions reported a noticeable decline in applications from both low-income and Black students, according to a survey by the American Council on Education.

Related: California’s COVID-19 recovery plan seeks to improve higher education equity

“The students in high school, the students who are currently attending college, this has been a really tough time for them,” said María Castro Barajas, assistant director of Pre-College Outreach and Engagement at CU Boulder, which runs a summer program for incoming racial and ethnic minority freshmen.

If low-income families’ savings for college were in short supply before the pandemic, that situation is even worse now, said Nathan Cadena, chief operating officer at the Denver Scholarship Foundation. “We are also seeing our young people being financial contributors much more often to the household,” he said.

It’s not only Colorado that is giving attention to this problem. Oregon legislators have proposed a task force to improve success rates for students who are underrepresented in college, including those who are low income and from racial and ethnic minority groups. The Illinois Board of Higher Education released a plan in June to raise graduation rates for Black, Hispanic and low-income students, who earn degrees at far lower rates than whites and higher-income students; 38 percent of Black and 52 percent of Hispanic students at that state’s 12 public universities ever graduate, compared to 70 percent of whites.

Nathan Cadena, chief operating officer at the Denver Scholarship Foundation. The pandemic made it even harder for Black, Hispanic and Native American students to go to college, he says, threatening to worsen a stubborn attainment gap. Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

A commission set up by educators, politicians, business leaders and others in North Carolina concluded that, if current trends don’t change, there will be more jobs requiring college degrees there than North Carolinians with degrees to fill them. Fewer than half of residents polled by Gallup for the commission agreed that students get an equal education regardless of their backgrounds; many singled out low-income and racial or ethnic minorities as among those they believe are shortchanged.

A report in May in Tennessee found that Black and Hispanic students attend its four-year universities at disproportionately low rates. And the Indiana Commission for Higher Education this summer concluded that Black and Hispanic and low-income students are less likely than others to be ready for and finish college.

About 48 percent of people in Indiana have college degrees, according to the state’s higher education agency, short of a target of 60 percent by 2025, and “without reversing the trends that some students more than others aren’t prepared for higher education or aren’t succeeding when they get there, we will not reach our goals,” said Teresa Lubbers, the commissioner.  

But the consequences go beyond what’s at stake for states’ attainment goals if fewer Black, Hispanic, Native American and low-income students continue to lag behind higher-income whites in graduating college, Ross said.

“We’ve seen what that looks like,” Ross said. “It looks like the pandemic. It looks like struggle. It looks like chaos. It looks like people in survival mode. And when you have a society that looks like that, it’s a recipe for haves and have nots.”

Related: Colleges face reckoning as plummeting birthrate worsens enrollment declines

As a practical matter, the problem will eventually come with a financial price, said Zax, the CU Boulder economist.

“If the segment of the population that cannot support themselves at levels that we think of as tolerable, if that segment grows, that’s going to become a larger burden on the rest of us,” he said.

That’s not what Victoria Torres wants. Another recent Denver high school graduate, Torres plans to go to college in the fall to become a teacher and help support her mother, an immigrant from Honduras “who’s done everything for me.”

Getting a degree, for her, “is like the white picket fence dream that all immigrant children come with,” said Torres, 17.

But it’s been so hard that she almost gave up, she said. “There’s a bunch of paperwork that you have to do, and taxes that you have to take from your parents and this and that. And my parents don’t speak English, and they don’t really read English. Helping me through that wasn’t their strong suit.”

Torres persisted. “When you work hard at something, something good has to come out of it,” she said. But other low-income young people she knows have had to help provide for their families. “So they’re like, ‘I can’t really do this.’ ” By comparison, Torres said, in the diverse middle school she attended in her gentrifying neighborhood, “I went to classes with more white students, and it just seemed like they had it set.”  

Her boyfriend, Elijah Quinonez, is also on his way to college in the fall, paying for it with a combination of loans and savings from his job at a King Soopers supermarket and with plans to someday run his own business.

Elijah Quinonez has been saving up for college, but he was daunted by the cost. “I was like, ‘Wow, those are some scary numbers,’ ” Credit: Sara Hertwig for The Hechinger Report

“When you start getting more work experience, you start realizing, like, it sucks that I have to work for somebody, make somebody else money when I could make my own business,” Quinonez said.

Still, he doesn’t see many of his friends going to college. Among those who have, some dropped out for financial reasons. “It just gets too expensive, and they just can’t afford it. So they pull back and come back home.”

Even he was daunted by the cost. “I was like, ‘Wow, those are some scary numbers, really expensive.’ And, yeah, I just felt discouraged, like, ‘Do I even really want to go to college if it’s that much?’ ”

But Quinonez, 18, said his football coach encouraged him. So did his family. In an elaborate tattoo on his left arm, the words “love,” “hope” and “faith” are connected by a chain to “family.”

There’s also a compass, which Quinonez said symbolizes looking ahead. Because “you can’t just be OK where you’re at. You always have to see what’s next.”

This story about racial inequity in higher education 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.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired, Medium.com...

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