The Incredible Whiteness of Higher Education
While the U.S. becomes less White, and Black and Latino segments of the population rapidly expand, state economies are increasingly relying on a well-educated, diverse workforce to fuel growth — putting college degrees at a premium. Of the 11.6 million U.S. jobs added since the Great Recession, 99 percent went to workers with a college education, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which also says that today, 65 percent of American jobs require workers to have had some college. However, the fact remains that most college graduates are overwhelmingly White.
Without the necessary credentials, many Blacks and Latinos may find it hard to land a good job, buy a home, start a family, and pay federal and state taxes that cover everything from military defense and medical research to Medicare and Social Security.
That’s why public colleges — which enroll about three-quarters of all students in the U.S. and are the most affordable pathway to a bachelor’s degree — are so crucial. They also tend to have greater resources, funding, and higher graduation rates than community and technical colleges do.
Ed Trust’s new report and accompanying web tool shine a light on which states are best and worst at meeting the higher education needs of their respective Black populations. Broken Mirrors: Black Student Representation at Public State Colleges and Universities lets policymakers and advocates not only see how their state scores and compares with other states, but also track progress over time. This should also serve as a wake-up call for state leaders –– many of whom, to their credit, have set ambitious goals for boosting the share of state residents with a college degree to meet rising demands for skilled workers. Unfortunately, these findings show that states are nowhere near hitting the education and workforce prep levels that employers will need to stay competitive.
If states are going to make inroads into closing racial attainment gaps, they will have to get serious about enrolling more Black students in four-year colleges. After all, if colleges don’t enroll enough Black students, they can’t graduate enough: “Their enrollment numbers already put them way behind. Even if public colleges in these states graduate everyone they enroll, they will still miss their targets,” says Andrew H. Nichols, Ed Trust’s senior director of higher education research and data analytics and co-author of the report.
The sad truth is, “we’re still more comfortable blaming individuals of color for failing to get a higher education, despite knowing that there are gross inequalities in the P-12 and college systems in terms of funding, teacher experience, access to rigorous curricular options, and the like,” Nichols says. “We’ve been doing things around the margins that pay lip service to equity, but we’re not doing enough to break up the systems that are designed to push certain people away.”
Using publicly available federal and census data, Ed Trust researchers analyzed student enrollment and graduation rates at public colleges and community colleges in 41 states and compared them to states’ racial demographics (excluding states with Black populations of fewer than 15,000 adults to avoid sampling errors). Ed Trust also created a State Equity Report Card web tool that rates states on an A to F scale, using metrics designed to assess how well (or poorly) a state’s public higher education institutions mirror the population (ages 18-49) they are supposed to serve.
The results aren’t pretty.
Only about half the states enroll a representative share of Black students at community and technical colleges –– this, despite the fact that students of color disproportionately attend such colleges. And just four out of 41 states –– Tennessee, Oregon, West Virginia, and Utah –– enroll a fair share of Black students in four-year public colleges and universities. Meanwhile, Black students are rare, compared with White students, at selective public colleges in a vast majority of states, particularly in Southern states with a long history of segregation (like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia).
“We have a long way to go before we have equitable outcomes in higher education –– both in terms of students enrolled and graduates,” says Oliver Schak, a senior policy and research associate for higher education at Ed Trust, and co-author of the report. Even he was struck by how lopsided still things are, noting that, especially on the completion front, no state is exemplary. Blacks are woefully underrepresented in public four-year institutions and selective public colleges in virtually every state: “Some states could double, triple, or quadruple the number of Black bachelor’s degree earners and still not approach an equitable percentage,” he says. (Here’s looking at you, California, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, and Wisconsin.) Only New Mexico, West Virginia, and Utah –– states with relatively few Black residents –– even came close to passing muster. Among states with a large Black population, Tennessee provided a rare bright spot, scoring an A for its share of Black undergraduates at four-year colleges and a B- for its share of Black bachelor’s degree earners.
“We expected the numbers to more accurately reflect states’ demographics, but what we saw was that public higher-education institutions in the vast majority of states are broken mirrors,” says Nichols.
That’s why advocates and policymakers should use the data and key questions outlined in this report as tools to uncover what’s happening in their states and why. (The report card is the measuring stick, while the questions serve as a magnifying glass to look closer.) For example, if a state gets good marks for enrolling a large share of Black students at public community colleges, advocates might use that as a starting point to ask questions about whether there’s more going on than meets the eye: Should some of those students be at four-year institutions, for example? The answers to this and similar questions might offer new and better ways to press leaders on equity and push the needle in the right direction.
Because the bottom line is this: Until we commit to dismantling the structural inequities that are baked into our educational systems and that continue to privilege White students over students of color, true equity may remain out of reach.