Persistent equity gaps in college degree attainment

A new report from the American Council on Education (ACE) finds that postsecondary degree attainment among U.S. adults increased from 2002 to 2022, but progress was uneven across racial and ethnic groups. During those two decades, the U.S. population became more racially and ethnically diverse, and colleges and universities across the country also saw increased enrollment of students from racially and ethnically diverse populations. Between 1999-2000 and 2019-20, the share of white undergraduate students at U.S. higher education institutions fell from 65.9% to 47.6%, while the share of students of color rose from 32.2% to 49.9%. 

Within that time, bachelor’s degree attainment rose across all racial and ethnic groups. In 2022, 23.4% of U.S. adults ages 25 or older had a bachelor’s degree as their highest level of postsecondary degree attainment, up from 17.7% in 2002. However, the rate of bachelor’s degree attainment was significantly lower for underrepresented students of color. Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (19.5%), American Indian/Alaska native (12.8%), Black (17.3%), and Latine (14.5%) students all experienced below-average bachelor’s degree attainment rates, according to the report. White and Asian students and students identifying as more than one race students posted above average rates at 26.1%, 33.1%, and 24%, respectively. Racial and ethnic disparities were also present in master’s, professional, and doctoral attainment as well. 

“Despite progress in enrollment and attainment among all groups, unacceptable gaps persist,” ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote in a foreword of the report, according to Higher Ed Dive. “White and Asian students are more likely than others to enroll in college, attend four-year institutions, and graduate with degrees that open the doors to valuable labor market opportunities.”

The report also showed racial and ethnic disparities in how students financed their education. In 2019-20, over one-third (36.3%) of all undergraduate students took out student loans, including Parent PLUS loans. However, nearly half of all Black undergraduates (49.9%) used loans to pay for their education, the highest rate of any racial and ethnic group measured. Black college students typically have more educational debt than their peers, which can prevent Black graduates from building wealth. In comparison, Latine and American Indian or Alaska Native undergraduates were least likely to take out loans.

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