The college attainment gap

Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight has a good writeup on the racial gaps in collegiate attainment. We have succeeded at narrowing the gap between white students and black students enrolling in college. “[J]ust under 70 percent of white high school graduates go to college,” Casselman explains, “versus 65 percent of blacks.”

Where the real disparity lies is the rate at which these students graduate from college. Among students who enter a four-year college, 60 percent of whites had a bachelor’s degree within six years, but only 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Latinos did.

Minority students therefore are entering college at about the same rates as white students are, but many of them are not finishing. The reasons for this attainment gap are not yet clear, but colleges and high schools have already shown concern. At the much-lauded KIPP charter school chain, administrators discovered a similar gap among their own students in 2011. KIPP (which serves predominantly low-income minority students) looked at its class of eighth graders from ten years earlier and found that one-third of these students wound up earning bachelor’s degrees.

KIPP had mixed feelings about this number. It exceeded the 30.6 percent national college attainment rate for Americans as a whole. It also far outpaced the dismal 8.6 percent college attainment rate for African-Americans in the same age cohort. But for a charter school chain that stresses academic achievement and focuses on sending students on to successful college careers, the data was nonetheless disappointing.

Like the data that Casselman looked at, KIPP found that its students were enrolling in college but failing to finish. KIPP found that 89 percent of its Houston and New York eighth graders ultimately enrolled in college, but only 33 percent finished. This gap appears to be even larger than the national gap among African-American students that Casselman found, where 65 percent enrolled but only 40 percent graduated.

There are a number of caveats to this. Casselman’s data looks only at high school graduates, whereas the KIPP data looks at KIPP’s former eighth graders – regardless of whether they finished high school with KIPP or at all. KIPP likely also serves a lower socioeconomic population than the national cohort of African-American high school graduates. (Casselman shows that there is also a socioeconomic gap between enrollment and graduation, though it is not as pronounced as the racial gap.)

The success of charter schools like KIPP in slashing high school dropout rates and raising high school graduation rates among low-income minority students ought to be celebrated. While education reformers are steadily narrowing our K-12 achievement gap, their next frontier will be confronting the college attainment gap. Schools are just beginning to wrestle with this gap, and many schools and districts surprisingly don’t track or publish data following their former students through college. They will need to identify what is causing this gap to persist. Maybe the schools’ methodology works for producing high school graduates, but doesn’t prepare students for college-style learning. Or maybe the tendency of these schools to have socioeconomically and racially isolated education (often by necessity) leaves students culturally unprepared for overwhelmingly white middle-class college campuses.

Whatever the cause, the imperative of the problem is clear. As our economy advances and becomes increasingly competitive, high school graduation and college enrollment are no longer enough to rest our laurels on.

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