Income, racial gaps remain in higher education, report finds

A new national higher education report revealed despite progress in educational attainment, graduation rates and the achievement gap continue to hold students back.

The report, released by The American Academy of Arts & Sciences' Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, tracked the graduating high school class of 2004 to reveal national trends in higher education. 

“The most relevant topic in higher ed right now is who’s going in and who’s completing,” said Audrey Jaeger, a higher education professor at N.C. State University.

Nationally, 40 percent of students complete a bachelor's degree within four years, and 60 percent graduate within six years.

 The UNC system's four-year graduation rates fared slightly better than the national average, with 44 percent of UNC-system students graduating within four years, and 67 percent within six years.

“While North Carolina is doing better than the national average, that still isn’t good enough,” Jaeger said. “We can either be a role model or part of the problem.”

The report also revealed a racial and socioeconomic gap between educational attainment rates.

In 2015, among people aged 25 to 29, 54 percent of white students had earned an associate's degree or higher compared to 31 percent of black and 27 percent of Hispanic students. Thirty-six percent of low-income students earned a bachelor's degree compared to 54 percent of students from high-income families.

“Success, defined simply as college completion — BA, AA, or certificate — is remarkably uneven, and it is our disadvantaged populations who face the biggest obstacles to success," Michael McPherson, co-chairperson of the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, said.

The report found minorities are underrepresented at selective colleges, or schools that accept less than 65 percent of applicants. White students are five times more likely to enroll in a highly selective college than black students. 

According to UNC admissions class profile, at Chapel Hill 73 percent of the 2014-15 first-year class was white, 11 percent was black and eight percent was Hispanic.

The national report attributes these disparities to a combination of affordability, familial expectations, access to information about college options and amount of college preparation.

“High schools can’t always offer the advanced courses needed to get into college," Jaeger said. "Some students don’t know that they can go to college. They don't have enough resources to help students complete FAFSAs and prepare for college."

George Leef, director of research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, said colleges shouldn't focus on specific demographics.

“I believe that all colleges and universities should try to make it as easy as possible for each student to achieve his or her educational goals, rather than trying to bring about any group results," he said. "Then leave it up to each student, no matter his background, to make the best of that opportunity."

McPherson said increasing access to higher education is going to become even more critical to the country's future.

“I would say that something we should learn from the past and that holds true today is that investments in higher education have proved vital to both our nation’s economic prosperity and the health of our democracy,” he said. 

McPherson said the findings of the report are cause for some hope. More than 85 percent of the 2004 high school graduates surveyed enrolled in college within eight years.

"This is a major movement in the right direction, in my view, so it's a hopeful sign," McPherson said. "But so much remains to be done."


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