The new Education Trust report on minority and low-income student college graduation rates confirms the sad fact that even though there has been an increase in minority degree completion, America’s black, Hispanic, and poor students still lag behind white students. The report provides a more detailed picture of graduate rates than the US Census Bureau’s recent findings, which were reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education: “from 2001 to 2011, the number of Hispanics 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree or higher rose by 80 percent, the figures show. Among blacks, the increase was 47 percent, and among non-Hispanic whites, it was 24 percent,” The more detailed Education Trust report, Charting a Necessary Path: The Baseline Report of Public Higher Education Institutions in the Access to Success Initiative, is the work of the Access to Success Initiative (A2S), and shows that “low-income and minority students enroll in and graduate from four-year programs at disproportionately lower rates than do other high school graduates.”
What is the Education Trust?
The Education Trust “promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels—pre-kindergarten through college,” and proclaims that its main purpose is to “close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people—especially those from low-income families or who are black, Latino, or American Indian—to lives on the margins of the American mainstream.” On its website, the Trust states its Core Beliefs:
- We believe in the power of education to close the gaps that separate low-income students and students of color from other young Americans.
- We believe that schools and colleges, appropriately organized, can help virtually all students master the knowledge they need to succeed.
- We believe long-standing gaps in opportunity, achievement, and attainment have roots inside and outside of schools. And though we know these gaps are stubborn, we also know they are not inevitable.
- We believe a strong education improves the lives of young people, is vital to sustaining our democracy, and strengthens America.
To that end, the Education Trust conducts research on higher education, frequently issuing position statements and letters to leading office holders on pending legislation. The Trust advocates accountability, high standards, equal access to funding, and the availability of information on public school performance. One of their more popular projects has been the creation of College Results Online, a free interactive site that allows students, parents, guidance counselors, and other interested players to research and compare college graduation rates at thousands of public and private, for-profit and non-profit colleges across the nation by race, ethnicity, and gender, as well as by costs, location, and other factors. The graduation rates are based on “13 factors known to affect graduation rates. Among them: student scores on college-admissions tests, institution size, and percentage of low-income students on campus.”
The Access to Success Initiative
As part of their efforts at data collection, the Education Trust also began to work with the Access to Success Initiative (A2S). The A2S is a collaborative project of the National Association of System Heads (NASH), an organization of the chief executives—college presidents–of the 52 public college and university systems in the United States and Puerto Rico. The A2S’s goals are “to increase the number of college graduates in their states and ensure that those graduates are more broadly representative of their states’ high school graduates.” It works with public higher education systems to raise the number of low income and minority students who start and finish a college degree.
A2S and the Education Trust collaborated on the new report, which is described as one of the few studies that integrates rates of part-time and transfer students. The report cites these significant research results:
- Despite significant gains in college-going rates for all students, gaps between white and minority students have grown over time.
- Though the rate at which low-income students enroll in college immediately after high school has more than doubled since the 1970s, these students have yet to reach the college-going rate of high-income students 35 years ago.
- Once in college, minority students are much less likely than white students to graduate. Nationally, about six in ten white students earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, compared with only about four in ten minority students.
The A2S report argues that the gap in minority and low-income student graduation from college should be a high priority issue not only for the economic health of the nation, but also because “increasing education levels and closing longstanding gaps between groups isn’t just important to our economic competitiveness. It also contributes to other things we hold dear as a nation, including democratic participation, social cohesion, strong families, and healthy behavior.”
Suggestions for Increasing Graduation Rates
The report also includes suggestions for increasing graduation rates, including the one thing that everyone seems to neglect in a time of extensive budget cuts: greater financial investment in the public higher education system. The report argues that the current trend of raising tuition and cutting courses will not help minority or, especially, low-income students, and that there is historical precedent for increasing public funding: “College was important enough to justify public investments for previous generations; it is even more important now.”
I also argued this same position in my article Sputnik Déjà vu, which highlighted the creation of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Unfortunately, that act was not targeted specifically at minority or low income students, and one could argue that is one reason it was successfully enacted—it was pitched as a necessary component of national security at the height of the Cold War and not something to further upset the controversial apple cart of race relations at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Interestingly, the Council on Foreign Relations recently argued that the current state of education is also a threat to national security—but times are different now. Today the economy is in trouble, there is increasing racial tension across the country, and class conflict is more visible now than in decades, as highlighted by the Occupy movement. It is possible that new funding initiatives designed to benefit minority and poor students may become overly politicized and subject to more controversy than the 1958 increase in higher education funding. Despite that, the Education Trust and A2S initiative should be commended for its new approach to data gathering and its fearless recognition of the need for, and promotion of, greater public funding for higher education.