The American public college system may not be the engine of equality most people imagine.
Of black students who started at a four-year public college in 2012, roughly 48 percent graduated within six years, according to data released Wednesday by the National Student Clearinghouse, an organization that tracks college completion data.
Of white students who started the same year, 72 percent finished in six years — a gap of about 25 percentage points. The gulf in completion rates between Hispanic and white students stands at about 15 percentage points, the report found.
Despite the gulfs, there is some evidence for optimism. In its broader college completion report released last year, the National Student Clearinghouse found that the completion rate for black students who started at four-year public colleges increased by 1.6 percentage points from the previous year. Hispanic students saw their completion rates go up by 1.7 percentage points.
“That’s a pretty big jump” from year to year, said Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
And, indeed, it is larger than the 1 percentage point increase in completion rates observed among white and Asian students.
But the still-wide gap in completion between black and white students and Hispanic and white students adds to the growing body of evidence that our public higher education system, originally envisioned as an engine of mobility and equality, serves some students more effectively than others, putting its historic mission at risk.
The reasons behind the gap in graduation rates between black and Hispanic students on the one hand and white students on the other are varied. For one, there’s evidence to suggest black and Hispanic students are under-represented at the nation’s top public colleges.
Over the past several years, critics have derided these schools for policies — including considering whether a student’s family member attended the school as part of the admissions decision or offering so-called merit-based financial aid at the expense of scholarships for low-income students — that they say has made them look increasingly like bastions of wealthy, often white students.
These schools — think the state flagship with the star professors and football team — typically have more resources, which can be key to getting students through college successfully.
Less selective, four-year regional public colleges, which tend to have higher shares of black and Hispanic students, struggle more to scrape together funding for counseling, advising and other resources that help students complete college.
But it’s often the case that even when they attend the same public four-year colleges, the graduation rates of black students still lag behind their white peers.
A 2016 report from the Education Trust, a nonprofit advocating for equity in education, found that even four-year public colleges were able to increase their overall graduation rates between 2003 and 2013, the gap in graduation rates between black and white students actually increased at many schools during that period.
Only schools that were intentional about increasing graduation rates of black and Hispanic students — through financial, academic and other support — were able to limit the gap in graduation rates, the EdTrust report found.
Some of these efforts may be behind the boost in graduation rates by black and Hispanic students, Shapiro said.
“A lot of colleges now are trying to pay more attention to analytic data that helps them identify students who might be at particular risk of having trouble completing,” he said.
“That helps them focus their efforts” to offer services and support, he added.
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