Equity & Diversity

Minorities Post Gains in Higher Ed., But Still Trail Whites

By Julie Blair — February 16, 2000 3 min read

More minority students are earning high school diplomas, enrolling in higher education, and completing degrees than in years past, an annual study shows. But a gap remains in the rates at which African- Americans and Hispanics on the one hand, and non-Hispanic whites on the other, graduate from both high school and college.

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The report, released by the American Council on Education last week, expresses optimism about the progress made by minority students, but argues that challenges to affirmative action and public skepticism about such policies “make it imperative” that colleges articulate the importance of racial and ethnic diversity on campus.

“Students of color are continuing to make gains in postsecondary education, and that is good news,” said Stanley O. Ikenberry, the president of the Washington-based ACE. “This report shows that institutional efforts to increase enrollment and academic success of students of color have been successful.”

Some observers, however, criticized the council’s 17th annual report on minorities in higher education as too sanguine. Minority college-enrollment statistics remain disappointing, they said, given the rise in high school graduation rates. In addition, they pointed out, most minority students who do enroll in college don’t make it to graduation day.

There’s a tendency for politicians and education groups “to state the numbers accurately, but to put a spin on them that makes it appear as if the nation is making a lot more progress than we are,” contended Patrick M. Callen, the president of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif. “Is higher education doing all we should when we see this kind of hemorrhaging?”

A look at the statistics shows that both blacks and Hispanics are graduating from high school in record numbers, yet their percentages lag behind that of whites. The gap is especially great for Hispanics.

Nearly 75 percent of African-Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 had earned diplomas as of 1997, the most current data available, up from nearly 68 percent in 1977. Some 62 percent of Hispanics in that age group had graduated, an increase from nearly 55 percent in 1977. By comparison, about 83 percent of all white students ages 18 to 24 had completed high school, a proportion that has changed little in the past 20 years.

More minority students are also graduating from college, but at lower rates than their white counterparts. Some 13 percent of African-Americans 25 years old and older had earned bachelor’s degrees as of 1997, an increase from just 7 percent in 1977.

About 10 percent of Hispanic students 25 years old and older who had enrolled in college had completed bachelor’s degrees, up from 6 percent in 1977.

Experts generally blame the gaps in college completion between white and minority students on the often-inferior quality of K-12 education for minorities, insufficient financial aid for college expenses, and what they see as a failure by many colleges to nurture minority students once they matriculate.

Moreover, about one-third of school-age Hispanics are new immigrants, a demographic group that typically does not do well in school, said Gumecindo Salas, the vice president for governmental relations for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, a San Antonio-based group that represents institutions with Hispanic majorities.

Researchers say they have few explanations for the differences in the educational achievement of African-Americans and whites.

“There’s something systematic that we’re not capturing,” said Amy E. Schmidt, an assistant research scientist for the College Board, based in New York City.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as Minorities Post Gains in Higher Ed., But Still Trail Whites

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