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Equity Attainment Gaps Growing in Most States

By Beatrice Ohene-Okae

Policymakers, businesses, institutions, and students share the goal of increasing the college attainment rate for our nation’s students broadly. College enrollment has increased over the last few years, but troublingly gaps in education attainment between white and other groups of students have actually been increasing. These gaps in attainment rate provide insight into the shortcomings of our higher education system, and challenge our ability to level the playing field and increase success overall. Young Invincibles recently published a comprehensive report on national equity gaps with federal policy strategies to address these problems. With our country’s population continuing to diversify, it is important that young people across our generation have equitable opportunities to access and complete higher education, increasing our ability to contribute to our local and state economies and create economically secure futures.

Both the federal government and states influence students’ ability to pursue affordable, quality education. To better understand how each state fits into the broader problem nationally, we analyzed attainment rates by race and ethnicity in every state and how they compare across different ethnic and racial groups. We identified gaps in the current rates (as of 2015) as well as compared the ten-year change from 2005. The results are troubling:

  • Over the last 10 years, 38 states (out of the 45 with data available) have seen the gap between African-American and white individuals widen.
  • Similarly, 39 states and the District of Columbia have widened their education attainment gaps between Latinx and white individuals.
  • On average, the gap between African-Americans and white Americans has grown 1.3 points in the last decade, while the gap between Latinx and white Americans has grown 1.9 percent.

The map linked below shows the current gaps and ten year changes for both demographics in every state.

From the map, we identified the five states with the highest attainment gaps in 2015 between white students and Latinx and African-American respectively, as well as the states whose gaps have grown the most in the last decade:

Few states have closed their education attainment gaps in the last decade.  New Mexico, Delaware, Oregon, Georgia, Connecticut, Nebraska, Virginia, Mississippi are among the 11 states that have closed education attainment gaps between African-American individuals and white individuals over the last 10 years. Maine, D.C, Hawaii, Wyoming, Puerto Rico, and Alaska are some of the 10 states that have closed education attainment gaps between Latinx individuals and white individuals.

What’s Driving Attainment Gaps (and helping close them)
There are numerous factors driving racial and ethnic disparities in our higher education system, so it remains difficult to point to singular strategies or programs states or institutions are using that widen or close these gaps.

African American and Latinx students experience unique legacies of discrimination and oppression. These legacies stem from explicit and implicit bias on an individual basis, as well as structural disparities in K-12 funding. Addressing these historic and current disparities requires explicitly acknowledging the unique challenges faced by underrepresented African-American, Latinx, and other students. That is why it’s encouraging to see influential organizations like the Lumina Foundation (and many others) include a “strong equity imperative” in their strategic plan and emphasize that “[e]quity must be at the center of our work to increase postsecondary attainment and reach Goal 2025.” Below we take a look a closer look at what some states and institutions are doing to acknowledge the problem and develop policies and interventions to improve equity in their systems:

Georgia has bucked national trends and closed the African-American attainment gap by 1 percent over the last 10 years, decreasing the original gap of 11 percent in 2005 to 10 percent in 2015. This is particularly significant as Georgia hosts one of the largest African American populations in the country. One potential driver of this trend is Georgia State University, recently recognized for conferring the most bachelor’s degrees to African-American students in the country. Georgia State has been using a predictive analytics system to improve the success of their students. The program has “tracked more than 140,000 student records and 2.5 million grades in order to identify behaviors that put a student at risk” of not completing and alert academic advisors to keep students on track to graduate. The outcomes at Georgia State have increased graduation rates by 6 percentage points since 2013, and helped students receive their degrees almost half a semester sooner than before, which has saved an estimated $12 million in tuition. The program at Georgia State has been so successful that, through the University Innovation Alliance, other universities such as Kansas University, Michigan State University, and Ohio State University have adopted these strategies as well to help improve the success of their students.

In Arizona, the attainment gap between Latinx individuals and white individuals has decreased by 1 percent over the last 10 years. Local dual-enrollment programs such as the Achieving a College Education (ACE) Program at Maricopa County Community College District (one of the largest community colleges in the country, serving 200,000 students)  could be working to close gaps. The program allows high school juniors and seniors to earn up 24 college credits. Additionally, Access ASU helps increase access to higher education for all Arizona students, and has several programs that support the academic needs of undocumented students or that help increase the number of first-generation Arizona students who are qualified and prepared to enroll at Arizona State University.

South Carolina
Likewise, South Carolina has decreased its attainment gaps between Latinx students and white students by 2 points in the last decade. At the same time, the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education has increased access to specific higher education resources for African-American, Latinx, and Native American students through comprehensive financial aid programs and scholarships. These programs and scholarship opportunities make college accessible and affordable for students of color, and could be contributing to the the closing attainment gaps for the state.

While federal policy helps provide underrepresented students with resources such as financial aid and support for minority-serving institutions, state and institutional policies play a large role in helping to close equity gaps. As our country continues to diversify, it’s clear that disadvantaged students are not receiving the educational resources that they need to succeed. Moving forward, we encourage states and individual institutions to take a good look at their education attainment gaps and develop policies to address them.

The analysis looked at population and education attainment figures provided by the U.S Census Bureau and American Community Survey (1-Year Estimates). From this information, the education attainment rate was calculated for each state. We analyzed current rates in education attainment (as of 2015) for 2 year and 4 year degrees as well as ten year (2005 to 2015) to estimate differences in the education attainment by comparing the attainment rates of Latinx students to white/non-Latinx students as well as comparing the attainment rates of African-American/black students to white/Latinx students. Overall, gaps in postsecondary education attainment have been increasing in the United States over the last 10 years between white students and other groups. The national average attainment gap between African-American and white students was 14 percent for 2015, and 19 percent between Latinx and white students.

From the initial analysis, states such as Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont did not have a large enough African-American population as compared to the margin of error for general population calculations, and therefore lacked sufficient data on the education attainment rate for this population group. These states were omitted from calculations for the education attainment gaps between African-Americans and whites in 2015 as well as from the 10 year education attainment gaps between African-Americans and whites. They are represented in grey for both layers of the map.

“Importing degrees” impacts this analysis. The attainment rate measures the degree holders currently living in each state but not necessarily the amount of degrees that each state produces.

Beatrice Ohene-Okae is currently the GIS Fellow for Young Invincibles – a policy driven organization in Washington, DC focused on addressing millennial issues surrounding healthcare, education, and employment. She is currently a senior at the University of Mary Washington and will be receiving a B.A. in Geography, minor in Environmental Sustainability, and certificate in GIS this May.