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Race Gap Narrows in College Enrollment, But Not in Graduation

Blacks are catching up to whites when it comes to going to college. But when it comes to finishing college and getting a degree, they are making much less progress.

Race and higher education are back in the news thanks to last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in college admissions. But while affirmative action often dominates the debate, it’s only a small piece of the much larger puzzle of gaps in higher education among different demographic groups.

By definition, race-based admissions are only an issue at selective schools, which account for about a quarter of undergraduate enrollment. But the racial gap in higher education goes far beyond those elite schools. Indeed, blacks and Latinos lose ground at every step of the educational process. They are less likely to finish high school, less likely to attend college and less likely to graduate when they get there.

All of that adds up to a big gap in the number that ultimately matters most: “educational attainment,” or the amount of school a person completes. In 2013, about 40 percent of whites between the ages of 25 and 29 had a bachelor’s degree or more, compared to about 20 percent of blacks, 15 percent of Hispanics and 58 percent of Asians, according to data from the Current Population Survey.1 The gap hasn’t narrowed significantly in recent years.


Many critics of affirmative action argue that what really matters isn’t race but income, and that colleges should focus on promoting socioeconomic, rather than racial, diversity. Indeed, when it comes to college enrollment, the income gap is significantly larger than the racial gap. About 82 percent of high school graduates from high-income families enroll in college, compared to 52 percent of graduates from low-income families. By comparison, just under 70 percent of white high school graduates go to college, versus 65 percent of blacks. Moreover, the racial gap has generally narrowed over time; the income gap has not.

Graduation rates are a different story. There is an income gap in graduation rates, but the racial gap is bigger. According to Education Department data, 47 percent of students who receive Pell grants, a federal student aid program for low-income students, graduate within six years, a higher graduation rate than that of both blacks and Latinos.2 This is far from a comprehensive analysis. A more complete study would account for high school quality, parents’ marital status and other factors that could contribute to students’ success. But the fact that racial minorities have lower graduation rates than low-income students suggests that, at a minimum, income can’t fully explain the racial gap in graduation.

Putting a firm number on this gap is surprisingly difficult. About 58 percent of whites and 69 percent of Asians who entered four-year colleges in 1996 had a bachelor’s degree six years later, compared to 39 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Hispanics, according to Department of Education data. Just under a decade later, whites and Hispanics had made a bit of progress and blacks hardly any at all: Of students who entered college in 2005, the most recent data available, 62 percent of whites got a degree within six years, versus 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics.3

But those figures leave out a lot of people: students attending part-time, students at two-year colleges and transfer students. That’s an important distinction. In a 2011 report titled, “Time Is the Enemy,” Complete College America showed that the longer it takes for students to move through college, the less likely they are to earn a degree. Anything that slows students down, whether it’s enrolling part-time, taking remedial courses or starting off in community college, makes students less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree.4 Minority students are overrepresented in nearly all those categories.


Minority students tend to enroll in less selective institutions. In 2011, the most recent year with complete data, 61 percent of white undergraduates were enrolled at four-year schools, compared to 56 percent of blacks and 46 percent of Latinos. Among those at four-year schools, 19 percent of whites were enrolled at elite research universities,5 compared to 9 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Latinos.

Students at these less prestigious institutions are much less likely to graduate. According to data from Complete College America, a coalition of 33 states and Washington, D.C., dedicated to improving graduation rates, full-time students at elite research universities were more than 50 percent more likely to graduate within six years as those at less selective institutions.6 Community college graduation rates are even lower: Less than a third of full-time community college students complete an associate degree within three years, according to Department of Education data.7

Moreover, those graduation rates only cover full-time students, which means they ignore more than one-fifth of undergraduates. According to Complete College America, less than 25 percent of part-time students complete a bachelor’s degree within eight years of enrollment, compared to about 60 percent of full-time students. And minority students are more likely to attend school part-time.

Lastly, the Department of Education’s graduation data also doesn’t distinguish between students who were ready for college and those who weren’t. According to Complete College America’s data, only 35 percent of students who take remedial courses earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 56 percent for the undergraduate population as a whole. Blacks are roughly 45 percent more likely to take remedial courses than whites. (Hispanics and Asians are also more likely than whites to take remedial courses, though less likely than blacks.)

Even a college degree doesn’t fully close the racial gap. College-educated blacks are more likely to be unemployed than college-educated whites, and they earn less money on average. But getting a degree makes a big difference. For blacks aged 25 to 29 with a college degree, the unemployment rate in 2013 was 7.6 percent. For those without one, it was 17.8 percent.


  1. The Census Bureau, and most other government agencies, consider Hispanic origin an ethnicity, not a race. Unless otherwise indicated, the terms “white” and “black” in this article refer to non-Hispanic members of those races. “Asian” includes people identifying as Pacific Islander.

  2. Based on 2003-04 students who earned a bachelor’s degree by 2009, and calculated from IPEDS data using PowerStats. Students are considered Pell recipients if they received a Pell grant at any point in their college tenure. Complete College America data, which includes part-time students, similarly shows higher graduation rates for low-income students than for blacks and essentially equal rates for low-income students and Hispanics.

  3. On-time graduation rates — the share of students who earned a bachelor’s degree within four years — show the same basic pattern.

  4. Many community college students, of course, aren’t planning to get a bachelor’s degree. And for some students and some careers, an associate degree might carry a significantly better return on investment. But despite numerous programs that aim to help students start at community college and then move up to a four-year institution, most students never make the leap.

  5. These are institutions rated “research university, very high” in Education Department data. The same pattern, with a somewhat narrower gap, exists one tier down at institutions considered “research university, high.”

  6. Data are for students who entered public colleges in fall of 2005 and completed by August 2009. On-time graduation rates were twice as high for students at selective schools.

  7. These data are for full-time students, enrolled for the first time, who are seeking a degree. Graduation-rate data are particularly problematic for community colleges. IPEDS tracks only “first-time, full-time” students, which leaves out a large percentage of community college students, many of whom are part-time or have previously enrolled in other schools. In states covered by Complete College America’s data, just 13 percent of full-time community college students earned an associate degree in three years, and just 4 percent of part-time students did so.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.