Nearly every state has set, revised or adopted a degree attainment goal in the last few years, fueled primarily by projections that 65% of job vacancies will require some type of post-secondary training by 2020.
In most cases, however, these degree attainment goals do not focus on the various racial and ethnic sub-populations in each state, which the Education Trust’s senior director of Higher Education Research and Data Analytics, Andrew Nichols, said is problematic, particularly as the nation’s demographics continue to shift toward a browner population.
A recent report from Education Trust found “black folks are essentially where white people were in the 1990s,” in terms of degree attainment, Nichols said, and the gaps in Latino attainment versus their white counterparts is actually growing.
This is a big deal for states like California, Texas, New York and Florida, said J. Oliver Schak, who serves as senior policy and research associate for Higher Education for Education Trust. These four states account for two-thirds of all Latino adults with college degrees, but “even in states where the Latino population is relatively small, it’s rapidly growing,” he said.
Illinois is one such example. The University of Illinois at Chicago is one of the few research intensive institutions that is also designated as an Hispanic Serving Institution.
Luis Duarte, associate director of the Latin American Recruitment and Educational Services (LARES) program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the university and other institutions need to prepare for “a Latino tsunami” — in 2014, non-white students outnumbered their white counterparts in school enrollment, and Latino students are enrolling in higher education in greater numbers than ever before. “Latino students are going to continue to increase in enrollment here, and we as an institution need to be sure we’re going to be able to meet their needs,” he said.
But despite record enrollment since the start of the decade, graduation remains a challenge, though these numbers vary greatly based on a number of factors, like a student’s country of origin. For students born in the U.S., there is still the issue of African-American and Latino students disproportionately attending under resourced schools, even when they don’t come from lower income families.
Systemic barriers to attainment
Many of these attainment gaps are “a byproduct of a lot of societal and educational factors,” said Nichols. For instance, the persistent wealth gaps that exist between racial groups, regardless of education level, the annual earnings gap — which is less glaring than the wealth gap, but still problematic — and K-12 funding gaps. There also are the higher proportion of less experienced teachers, noted discipline disparities and intrinsic biases that all play a part in students’ college attainment.
“All of these things affect students’ abilities to accumulate the kind of academic portfolio needed to go to college” and succeed, he said.
“Our system has left them behind,” said Duarte, who pointed to the number of schools closing in Chicago and considerably budget instability, which disproportionately impacts “the public schools where a majority of our Latino and African-American students are going.”
Higher ed leaders have to reconcile that “historically, higher ed was not created for Latino and African-American students” and find ways to correct that to move the needle, he said.
Nichols said, at the institutional level, part of the problem is black and Latino students tend to be underrepresented at more-selective, better-resourced institutions which could arguable better afford to serve them, and overrepresented at community colleges and minority-serving institutions, which historically have significantly fewer resources and serve students with significantly more challenges.
The real challenge to states, said EdTrust director of higher education policy Tiffany Jones, is to make sure they are allocating the resources to the institutions where African-American and Latino students are most likely to enroll. Campuses have to be held accountable for the outcomes of individual student groups, she said, and serving students of color has to be prioritized.
“If you just do outcomes without including those [specific] priorities, institutions would just exclude those students” from participation in higher education, Jones said. Many elite and public research institutions have already largely done this, according to an analysis from the Hechinger Report. And because data showing family income levels don’t explain all the disparities, Jones said it is important for states and institution leaders to “be explicit about race — don’t mask it as low-income or first-generation” access.
Focusing on income alone as a factor will never solve the problem of racial attainment gaps, Nichols added.
He noted that "there are probably lots of different types of interventions you can take,” but the bottom line is holding people accountable for student success, and not just collecting data, but by “mak[ing] people look at it and see what it says and do something about it.”