Why state attainment goals may be slipping out of reach

Persistent racial disparities in college degree completion pose a significant threat to state attainment goals and local economies, further fueling outreach to underrepresented students, according to The Hechinger Report.

Figures from the Lumina Foundation on racial gaps in degree attainment between 2008 and 2018 show stagnation and some declines—disparities likely to be further worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the 2008-18 timeframe, the overall percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds who had earned a college credential climbed from 38 percent to 45 percent nationally. However, the gap between attainment rates for Black and white adults widened—from 18 percentage points to 20—as did the attainment gap between white and Native American adults, which grew from 24 percentage points to 31. The gap in attainment rates for white and Hispanic adults held relatively steady at 25 percentage points.

A steep economic cost

“It is incredibly important to be narrowing rather than expanding those attainment gaps,” Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told The Hechinger Report. “There’s a moral imperative, but also an economic imperative here—real dollars-and-cents reasons for society to close those gaps.”

Eliminating educational attainment disparities across income levels and races/ethnicities is an expensive proposition. But failing to do so costs the United States nearly $1 trillion in lost economic benefit annually, according to a recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Related: The steep cost of inequality in higher education >

States confront outsized gaps

The Hechinger Report highlights Colorado—which is working toward an attainment goal of 66 percent for ages 25-34 by 2025—as one state reckoning with especially large disparities. Population statistics from 2019 indicate that 59 percent of the state’s white population has attained a credential, compared with 38 percent, 25 percent, and 31 percent of the state’s Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native populations, respectively.

In response, Colorado is reorienting its school funding to direct more resources to low-income students and will allow four-year public universities to grant associate degrees to students who have at least 70 credits but paused their studies before earning a bachelor’s degree.

Some Colorado institutions also have developed programming, such as summer seminars, to help prepare underrepresented students for the college environment. Others are focused on meeting students’ basic needs, given how many low-income students are food- and housing-insecure, said Ryan Ross, the Colorado Community College System’s associate vice chancellor for student affairs, equity, and inclusion.

In Illinois, meanwhile, education officials this summer shared a plan for boosting Black, Hispanic, and low-income students’ college graduation rates. Currently, 70 percent of white students at Illinois public universities graduate, compared with just 38 percent of Black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students.

Indiana is grappling with similar gaps; less than half of state residents have college degrees, despite the state’s goal of ensuring 60 percent have a credential by 2025. “Without reversing the trends that some students more than others aren’t prepared for higher education or aren’t succeeding when they get there, we will not reach our goals,” cautioned Teresa Lubbers, the state’s higher education commissioner.

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