The College Degree Attainment Gap Between Whites and Minorities is Getting Worse

The United States has long prided itself on being a land of equal opportunities where anyone, regardless of their race, color, religion, or ethnicity, can achieve the American Dream. Education has always been seen as the great equalizer, the path to upward social and economic mobility, and the key to success.

However, the sad truth is that the college degree attainment gap between Whites and Minorities is getting worse, not better. Despite some progress in recent years, the educational divide between racial and ethnic groups remains wide, persistent, and troubling.

According to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2019, 57 percent of Whites aged 25-29 had attained at least an associate degree, compared to only 34 percent of Blacks, 26 percent of Hispanics, and 39 percent of Asians. These disparities are even more pronounced at the bachelor’s and graduate levels, where Whites are overrepresented and Minorities are underrepresented in almost every field, from STEM to business to the arts.

African Americans and Hispanics are particularly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, which are increasingly in demand and pay well. Data from the National Science Foundation shows that while Blacks and Hispanics make up over 30 percent of the U.S. population but account for only 20 percent of STEM degrees awarded each year. In contrast, Whites make up 63 percent of the population but earn 70 percent of STEM degrees.

Moreover, these gaps are not just limited to higher education but start early in the educational pipeline, from preschool to high school. Minorities are more likely to attend underfunded and under-resourced schools, experience higher rates of discipline and suspension, and encounter systemic and implicit biases that hinder their academic performance and potential.

What are the causes of these disparities, and what can be done to address them? The root causes are multifactorial and complex and involve social, economic, cultural, and policy factors. For instance, Minorities are more likely to live in poverty, have single-parent households, face high rates of crime and violence, and lack access to quality healthcare, housing, and transportation.

The educational system itself is also to blame, as it perpetuates and reinforces systemic inequities, biases, and prejudices that manifest in the form of tracking, standardized tests, teacher qualifications, and curriculum. Additionally, Minority students frequently face challenges in blending their multiple identities such as being first generations, immigrants, and bilingual that further exacerbates their struggles.

To close the college degree attainment gap, we need a comprehensive and collaborative approach that addresses these underlying systemic issues from a social justice perspective. We need to invest in early childhood education and early intervention programs, increase the quality and diversity of teachers and school leaders, increase financial supports to students of color, and create policies that champion diversity and inclusion in higher education.

We need to look beyond individualistic solutions that place the burden solely on the shoulders of students and their families, and instead recognize the need for systemic change that empowers diverse voices and perspectives to thrive. We need to recognize differences and provide support without trying to homogenize these underrepresented groups and refrain from stereotyping them.

The college degree attainment gap between Whites and Minorities is a symptom of a larger problem- the racial and social injustice that pervades our society. Until we address these broader issues, we cannot truly close the gap, ensure that all students have equal opportunities to pursue their dreams, and create an equitable and just society for all.    

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