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More Americans Are Getting College Degrees, But The Education Gap Keeps Growing

Here’s the good news: the proportion of Americans with college degrees has increased significantly over the last decade, rising from 38 to 45 percent among 25-34 year olds.  

Here’s the bad news: all this progress hasn’t closed the attainment gap for different racial and ethnic groups. In fact, the gap has gotten wider.

According to the Hechinger Report and the Lumina Foundation, the gap between college attainment for white and Black Americans has increased from 18 to 20 points over the past 10 years, and the gap between whites and Native Americans has grown from 24% to 31%.

This is a huge problem not just for those who are stuck without college credentials in an economy that increasingly demands them, but for the economy itself: research has clearly established that economic growth is tied to the education and participation of the available workforce.

As Mamie Voight, interim president of 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.”

California is doing well in some regards: According to Lumina’s dataset, the percentages of Californians in all reported ethnicities who hold a college degree has increased — at least slightly — over the same period.  

The total percentage of Black Californians ages 25-34 with a degree increased by 6%, and Hispanic Californians’ degree attainment increased by just over 8%.

The percentage of Indiginous Californians briefly increased by 6% early in the period examined, but then dropped again, leading to a total increase for the decade of just over 1%. Clearly there’s more work to be done here.

However, from the perspective of equity, California is still struggling with the same issue: the gap between ethnic and racial groups remains hard to close. The increases in degrees among all Californians aged 25-34 over the same period increased 9%, meaning that even as every group in California is doing better in absolute terms, relatively,  many are falling behind.  

What can be done to increase both total attainment and equity? California is emphasizing a two-pronged approach. First, its traditional colleges — especially the California Community College system — are focusing on equity and outreach and working on ways to make college degrees more accessible to populations that have traditionally struggled the hardest.  

The second approach is creating innovative new kinds of college education specifically designed to provide an education that addresses many of the systemic issues — like cost and time commitment — that have made college inaccessible to traditionally marginalized populations. Colleges like Calbright. Even if Calbright students don’t get traditional degrees, they will have the kind of enhanced economic engagement that a college degree provides - thus supporting equity and getting California where we want it to go.  Recent studies have shown that receiving non-degree certificates from a community college can provide a significant economic benefit - on average $18,000 annually - to adults without a college degree. 

Though Calbright is just emerging out of its startup period, our early numbers are encouraging: well over 50% of our students are Black, Latinx, or Indiginous, and the vast majority have no college degree. We are demonstrating that it’s possible to reach traditionally underserved populations if you offer programs that meet their needs and that they can access.

Still, there’s so much more to do. The Lumina Foundation numbers show that problems can get better and worse at the same time. It’s not enough for college enrollment and completion to increase, progress which the pandemic has thrown into question; we need to increase enrollment and completion for everyone, while enhancing equity. California’s solving one problem — but we need to solve both. That’s going to take both reforms and innovations at existing institutions, and whole new approaches.