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The Surprising Sources of Racial Gaps in Higher Education

When New York University Professor Stella Flores and her research partners set out to uncover what leads Black and Hispanic students to drop out of college more readily than White students, she found that much of the racial gap in college completion had much less to do with what happens in college. FutureEd Editorial Director Phyllis Jordan interviewed Flores, one of our research advisers, about the new study of Texas students.

You have been studying the college completion gap between students of different races. What have you found?

 We found that completion gaps do exist and that they are bigger between White and Black students than between White and Hispanic students. The rate of White college freshmen earning bachelor's degrees was 14 percentage points then for Hispanic students; the White-Black gap was 21 percentage points.

What caused the gaps?

We studied three different factors: individual student characteristics; academic preparation; and high-school and post-secondary context. We thought to look at the categories out of a belief, a hypothesis, that how you perform in college is not isolated to the college experience.

Your neighborhood context—we used the economic status of the individual student, as measured by indicators like eligibility for subsidized school meals in Texas—may contribute to how you perform in high school, for example, and high school preparation affects how you perform in college. 

What did you find?

Sixty percent of the college completion gap by race can be accounted for by pre-college characteristics that include the individual context, the academic preparation and the high school context.

One of the biggest contributors was the level of racial segregation in a high school. Attending a high school where a majority of students were Black or Latino was by far the biggest contributing factor among all the high school and college variables examined. Such schools often have higher concentrations of disadvantaged students and fewer school resources, which can negatively impact academic success.

What about the impact of the college itself?

Another 40 percent of the gap was accounted for by post-secondary context—graduation rates were influenced by schools with higher tenure rates, the student-faculty ratio and the size of the institution. Selectivity was also a factor in other analyses in which there was variation in the landscape of colleges and universities. Students at more selective institutions, regardless of their race, have traditionally graduated at higher rates, and continue to do so.

What else did you learn?

We wanted to know if these factors affected different racial groups differently.

And they do. The largest contributor to the completion gap between Black and White students is different than that what is driving the differences in completion between Latino and White students.

While both are deeply affected by economic disadvantage and academic preparation, Black students are overwhelming influenced by the lack of academic preparation. We found they have less access to rigorous curricula, to college-ready classes. They take fewer advanced-level math courses like trigonometry, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, or even dual-enrollment coursework (college-level classes usually in high school where students receive both high school and course credit).

The difference between Whites and Blacks in Texas who take trigonometry is quite stark, upwards of nearly 25 percentage points. We believe and have evidence for that since math matters not only for high school graduation and college enrollment; it’s certainly going to matter for college completion as well. That’s a signal that we need to pay attention to.

While what’s driving the Hispanic/White gap has more to do with economic disadvantage. Can you tell me more? 

In Texas, Hispanic students are also not receiving the same academic opportunities in course preparation as White students, but the gap is closer to 10 percentage points in regard to trigonometry course taking. But far more Latinos attending four-year institutions are economically disadvantaged, about 48 percent, compared to 3.5 percent of White students and 30 percent of Black students. This is related to a number of factors but we found that Hispanics are also more likely to attend high schools that are a majority-minority. The greater odds of attending a racially segregated school is likely tied to a higher likelihood of concentrated poverty as well.

Given what you’ve found, what should schools do? What should states do? What do we need to do to turn this around?

Having a lot of data, being able to track students from kindergarten all the way to graduate school is a valuable first step in identifying solutions. The information available to us suggests that our policies need to be targeted along the entire educational trajectory.

If I were a school superintendent, I’d like to know, where is it that my most vulnerable students are experiencing the most declines or a lack of access to particular factors that we know play a role in college access AND completion. If you’re a superintendent of a predominantly Hispanic school district, for example, if you are not supplementing improvements in access to college-ready curricula with financial literacy on how to get into college, how to apply for college, how to stay in college, the value of the college-readiness work is going to be greatly diminished.

Flores, an associate professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, worked with Toby J. Park of Florida State University College of Education and Dominique J. Baker of Southern Methodist University Simmons School of Education and Human Development on the study.