The enduring, widening disparities that limit Black students’ degree attainment  

Racial gaps in college access, degree attainment, and wealth are widening, education leaders tell The Hechinger Report, voicing concern about state legislation targeting diversity, equity, and inclusion programs in higher education and the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions.

“In a way, we’re in the worst of all possible worlds for civil rights, because people think a lot of problems have been solved,” Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells The Hechinger Report. “The gaps are huge, and there’s no prospect of them closing in the foreseeable future. We’re going backwards.”

Related: It will take 70 years for the U.S. college student population to reflect the nation’s demographics, a new report shows >

K-12 disparities set the stage for long-term gaps

Research has shown that inequities in the K-12 education system are a key source of the problem. Black high school students are more likely to say they want to attend college than white students, according to focus groups convened by Edge Research and HCM Strategists for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. However, 45% of Black students attend high-poverty primary and secondary schools—which may lack the resources students need to fulfill those college dreams—compared to 8% of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

“The majority of students of color are attending schools, often in urban districts, that are under-resourced in terms of their class sizes, teacher turnover, and limited teaching resources,” Dr. Juontel White, the senior vice president of programs and advocacy for the Schott Foundation for Public Education, explains in a Q&A with The 74. “So at every level of our K-12 education system, both opportunity and a necessity for action is needed in order for equity to be achieved and realized.”

The impact on higher education

Although higher education institutions are meant to close these gaps, student outcomes show increasing inequities. Black postsecondary enrollment fell 22% between 2010 and 2020, according to data from the NCES, and it has decreased another 7% since then, says the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Although the enrollment of white students has also fallen since 2010, the difference between the share of white students and Black students with postsecondary degrees remains large, with 34.2% of the Black population in the U.S. holding at least an associate degree, compared to 50.2% of white population as of 2021, according to the Lumina Foundation.

The wealth gap between Black and white households is also growing, leading to persistent barriers in college access. White families have eight times the median wealth of Black families—$188,200 to $24,100—a gap that is also widening, the Federal Reserve reports. At the same time, net prices at some institutions have increased more for lower-income students than higher-income students. Financial aid eligibility rules have made it more difficult for Black students to access aid that would reduce costs, according to research by the Urban Institute.

As a result, Black college students are more likely to take on student debt than white college students and are disproportionately likely to have debt without earning a credential. When Black students attain a degree, they also go on to earn less after graduation and are more likely to be unemployed, according to the NAACP. 

If the Supreme Court ends race-conscious college admissions, selective colleges and universities are likely to become even less racially and economically diverse, limiting access to a college degree, which remains the most reliable pathway to the middle class, according to researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

To increase Black students’ access to higher education and their retention rates once they get there, experts say colleges need to invest in hiring faculty that reflects the diversity of an institution’s student population and to create campus environments in which all students feel physically and psychologically safe.

Building awareness about the barriers to education that continue to exist is also key, White tells The 74. “It is true that inequality has endured, we do not have a panacea, and all levels of society—both political and individual—are required.”

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