June 24, 2024

The college-going gap between Black and white Americans was always bad. It's getting worse. – USA TODAY

From the time Patrick Ben III decided he would go to college, there seemed to be an obstacle at every turn.
The high school he attended on Chicago’s South Side offered few of the advantages wealthier kids got. There were no Advanced Placement courses, and little help was available with college and financial aid applications.
“I understood that a lot of the things I did to prepare for college I would have to do myself,” said Ben, who is Black.
When he finally made it to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the shortcomings of his high school were laid bare. Other students from more affluent places “were sitting there in class talking about how they’ve already done this stuff, where I’m thinking, all of this is new to me.”
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These things “just reminded me of what I already knew about the politics of education and the lack of resources in low-income communities when it comes to schools,” said Ben, now 22 and about to graduate and go back to Chicago to teach while pursuing a master’s degree.
“I can’t be mad that the opportunities are different,” he said, “because it’s out of my control. It’s just the way society is.”
As states push back against diversity programs at public universities and the Supreme Court considers whether to eliminate affirmative action in admissions, a central question remains: whether the playing field has finally been leveled, especially between white and Black Americans who aspire to college educations and the higher quality of life they bring.
The answer? Not only has this divide failed to narrow − it’s getting worse.
“In a way, we’re in the worst of all possible worlds for civil rights, because people think a lot of problems have been solved,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In fact, Orfield said, “we’re not making progress. The gaps are huge, and there’s no prospect of them closing in the foreseeable future. We’re going backwards.”
Black college and university enrollment has been dropping steadily. Already down by 22% between 2010 and 2020, or more than 650,000 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, it has fallen by another 7% since then, more recent figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.
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Even though the number of white students has also declined since 2010, the difference between the proportions of white students and Black students graduating with degrees has gotten bigger, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.
Thirty-four percent of Black adults have associate degrees or higher, compared with 50% of white adults, according to the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
“There’s a facade that’s trying to be presented that everything is OK. But we never were OK, even before the pandemic,” said Wisdom Cole, national director of the NAACP youth and college division.
Many factors account for the disparity. The biggest is cost.
We’re not making progress. The gaps are huge, and there’s no prospect of them closing in the foreseeable future. We’re going backwards.
Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, University of California, Los Angeles
The average Black household earns about half as much as the average white household, and white families have eight times the median wealth of Black families − $188,200, compared with $24,100 − a gap that also has been widening, the Federal Reserve reports.
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“The equalizer to close these gaps was supposed to be education. If you’re able to go to college, you’re able to find a job and support yourself and your family. But the outcomes aren’t showing that,” said Justin Nalley, senior policy analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Black think tank.
This economic disparity means that going to college, for Black Americans, is far more likely to require going into debt − and larger amounts of it. Eighty-six percent have to borrow toward a bachelor’s degree. Black students who make it to graduation end up owing nearly 50% more than white graduates, according to the Brookings Institution.
They also go on to earn less than white graduates, which makes that obligation harder to repay.
University degree or not, “you’re facing discrimination in the workplace when it comes to hiring and when it comes to salaries,” Cole said.
Black college and university graduates earn an average 15% less than their white classmates and are more likely to be underemployed, the NAACP finds. Almost 40% default on their college loans within 12 years, compared with 12% of white graduates, The Institute for College Access and Success says.
But the other reasons Black enrollment has been declining begin much earlier than college, with the quality of the education Black students receive in kindergarten through grade 12.
Forty-five percent of Black children go to high-poverty primary and secondary schools, compared with 8% of white students.
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Black students are more likely than white students to be held back, disciplined or diverted into special education and less likely to have access to Advanced Placement courses, researchers at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University have found.
Black high school students who didn’t go to college or dropped out are more likely to say they want to go, or go back, than similar white students – 50% to 42%, respectively – according to focus groups convened by Edge Research and HCM Strategists for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Yet while 67% of white high school graduates went directly to college in 2020, the most recent year for which the figure is available, 54% of Black high school graduates did, the National Center for Education Statistics reports. That’s down from 66% in 2010.
Results like these owe more to the wealth divide than to academic ability, a long-term federal study suggests.
The study followed 23,000 students beginning in 2009, when they were in the ninth grade. An analysis of the resulting data by the Center for American Progress found that even the highest-achieving low-income students went to college at lower rates than their more affluent counterparts. The wealthiest students with mediocre academic backgrounds were just as likely to enroll as the lowest-income students with the highest grades and test scores.
“It’s tempting to think that America has largely solved its problems surrounding access to postsecondary education,” the Center for American Progress report said. In fact, it said, the data show “that the United States still fails miserably” at this.
Financial aid can help, but eligibility rules for some of the nearly $15 billion in state-level financial aid for college often make it harder for Black students to get that aid, research by the Urban Institute has found. That’s because these programs are often based on high school academic performance, which can be affected by the varying quality of schools, and require students to attend college full time and immediately after graduating from high school, which Black students are less likely than white students to do.
Those Black students who do manage to enroll in college are less likely to finish. About 40% go to lower-priced but poorly funded public community colleges, which have very low completion rates. Nearly half of all public community college students drop out, within a year, of the school where they started, and only slightly more than 40% finish within six years.
Black students also disproportionately attend part time. Fifteen percent are caregivers for family members, 11% are parents or guardians, and 20% work full time − all about double the proportions of other students.
Fifty-six percent of Black students at four-year universities and colleges go part time at some point versus 42% of white students, which makes it far less likely they will graduate within six years, according to the advocacy group Complete College America.
When they are on campus, more than a fifth of Black university and college students report frequently or occasionally feeling discriminated against; of these, 61% have considered dropping out, a Gallup poll commissioned by Lumina and released in February found.
“Having a sense of belonging is critical, and part of what has happened in the last few years is this sort of heightening of these culture wars that create even more questioning of, ‘Do I really belong on campus?’” said Steve Colón, CEO of Bottom Line, which provides counseling to help Black and other marginalized students get to and through college.
Even the highest-achieving low-income students went to college at lower rates than their more affluent counterparts. The wealthiest students with mediocre academic backgrounds were just as likely to enroll as the lowest-income students with the highest grades and test scores.
Center for American Progress study
Even dorms are increasingly racially segregated, a researcher at the University of Kansas has found, with higher-quality buildings that, because of their cost, are often predominantly white.
“If the education they’re receiving is not equitable, if they’re seeing discrimination happen on campus, segregation happening on campus − it’s not enough to just attract students to that campus, but are you retaining those students?” Cole said.
Here, too, the answer is no. Only 40% of Black students graduate from four-year universities and colleges within even six years, compared with 64% of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; the rest are still struggling through or have dropped out, most of them with debt but no degree.
This leads to the reality that although only about a third of Black Americans have college and university degrees, more than half of 25- to 40-year-old Black parents heading households owe student loan debt, according to the progressive think tank Demos.
Nineteen percent of Black adults, or nearly 6.4 million, have some college credit but no degree compared with 16% of white adults, the Census Bureau reports.
This creates a vicious cycle, said Keith Curry, president of Compton College, a community college in California, and part of a group of college administrators, consultants and policymakers alarmed by and trying to reverse the decline in Black enrollment.
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“If a student doesn’t have a good experience, they will tell somebody else in their neighborhood,” he said. “A younger relative who hears that story isn’t going to enroll.”
For this and other reasons, experts and research suggest these declines may speed up.
If the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action in admissions in a decision expected by the end of June, selective colleges and universities are likely to become even less racially diverse, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has concluded.
“We’re actually looking at projections that show we’re not going to be really closing this gap for a very long time, if ever,” said Orfield, author of “The Walls Around Opportunity: The Failure of Colorblind Policy for Higher Education.”
When California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, prohibiting public universities from considering race in admission, Black students ended up being pushed from more selective to less selective institutions, research at the University of California, Berkeley found.
It’s a demoralizing time, Curry said. “But also look at it this way: You’ve seen marginalized groups that have experienced racism for decades, even centuries. We’re trying to change systems and structures that have been around for decades.”
Bez Burks, a junior at Illinois State University, sees visceral symbols of the equity divide when he visits a classmate who lives in a luxury apartment building near the campus.
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His friend, who also has a car, enjoys a pool, a fitness center and a 2,700-square-foot suite with granite countertops, flat-screen TVs and queen-sized beds. Some of the units include hot tubs, steam showers, balconies and bistro kitchens.
Burks, who is Black and − like Ben − from Chicago’s South Side, took three buses each way, every day, to go to a charter high school away from his neighborhood. In college, he works more than 20 hours a week at Walmart to help pay for his tuition and rent for a much more modest room. His single mother, a nurse, picks up extra shifts to help, and he has taken out loans and applied for grants from nonprofit organizations to cover the rest.
Sometimes, this reminder of the comparative obstacles he faces “really grinds my gears,” said Burks, a marketing major who hopes to one day start his own marketing firm. But “I try not to think about it too much. If I have to work twice as hard, that’s what I will do.”
This story about the college equity gap was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for ourhigher education newsletter.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the types of students who were surveyed in focus groups. 


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