Report: Racial, gender gaps persist despite degree attainment gains

A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) finds that from 2010 to 2020, the proportion of U.S. adults with college degrees rose by 6.7 percentage points, from 38.5% to 45.2%—an increase that will result in $14.2 trillion in additional net lifetime earnings for workers and benefit the U.S. economy through additional spending and tax revenue. 

However, the report, titled Learning and Earning by Degrees: Gains in College Degree Attainment Have Enriched the Nation and Every State, but Racial and Gender Inequality Persists, shows that not everyone experienced the benefits of these educational attainment gains to the same degree. Educational attainment gaps between white adults and adults from historically marginalized communities remain significant and result in continued economic and social inequality.

Related: Georgetown report identifies 10 education and career interventions that improve economic outcomes for young adults >

“While all racial/ethnic groups increased their educational attainment, substantial attainment gaps persist between white adults and Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, and Indigenous adults,” CEW Director and lead author Anthony P. Carnevale said in a press release. “Attainment gaps by race/ethnicity were significant in 2010, and they remained significant in 2020.”

These gaps were found almost exclusively at the bachelor’s and graduate degree levels, which typically lead to greater employment and earnings. From 2010 to 2020, degree attainment gaps narrowed slightly between white adults and Latine adults, as well as between white adults and adults from other/multiracial backgrounds. However, there are still “colossal gaps” between the attainment of white adults and American Indian/Alaska Native adults, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander adults, and Black adults, and those disparities have played a significant role in continued economic inequality. 

Related: Georgetown report emphasizes central role of postsecondary education in U.S. workforce >

Persistent inequities

Still, degree attainment by itself is not enough to reduce the inequality caused by wage gaps, labor-market discrimination, systemic barriers that shape hiring practices, and occupational segregation, CEW researchers say. Even among adults with the same level of degree attainment, those from marginalized racial and ethnic groups earn less than white adults.

Similarly, while women have higher degree attainment than men, but men consistently have higher lifetime earnings than women within the same racial or ethnic group at every education level.

“Equal degree attainment does not mean people earn the same. In fact, women need much more education than men to reach the same earnings,” said Jeff Strohl, CEW’s director of research and co-author of the report. “For example, the median annual earnings for white women with bachelor’s degrees are roughly $41,000, compared to median annual earnings of more than $42,000 for white men who have some college credit but no degree.”

More equitable degree attainment and lifetime earnings

Closing the education attainment and earning gaps can have an overall positive impact on the U.S. economy and society, CEW researchers say. A college education remains the most reliable route to good-paying jobs, improved living standards, and a strong U.S. economy, according to Georgetown researchers.

If all racial and ethnic groups had at least the same educational attainment of white adults, workers would see $11.3 trillion more in net lifetime earnings, in addition to the $14.2 trillion expected from the increased degree attainment between 2010 and 2020. If those workers also earned at least as much as white adults with the same education level, they’d add another $6.3 trillion in net lifetime earnings. Other, nonmonetary benefits of equitable attainment include increased participation in civic life, longer life expectancy, increased resistance to authoritarianism, and lower rates of disease across all racial/ethnic groups and genders.

To achieve educational and economic parity, the report calls for policies that reduce food and housing insecurity, narrow opportunity gaps in early childhood through universal preschool education, increase early college and career counseling, improve college affordability, reduce occupational segregation, ensure college students have access to high-demand majors, and promote equal pay among workers with the same level of education.

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