The all-too-familiar narrative of racial and ethnic gaps in educational attainment will persist well into the twenty-first century unless “targeted and tailored” strategies are implemented for various underrepresented groups. That is the message of a forthcoming ETS report titled “Challenges and Opportunities in National Postsecondary Degree Attainment Goals.”
The groundbreaking report, authored by Michael Nettles, senior vice president at ETS and chair of the organization’s Policy Evaluation & Research Center, or PERC, is the first to disaggregate data in order to forecast precisely when and how various groups within the United States will reach national degree attainment goals set by the Lumina Foundation and federalized under the Obama administration in 2009.
The federal goal calls for 60 percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 to have earned a two- or four-year college degree by 2020. The Lumina goal is similar and calls for 60 percent of Americans ages 25 to 64 to have a post-secondary credential, which could include high-quality certificates, with labor market value by 2025.
The ETS report’s findings show that several minority groups will not only fail to reach these educational benchmarks by the target dates, but won’t do so for many years to come without effective interventions.
“National college attainment goals are a great step towards preparing our country’s citizens for the contemporary workforce,” said Nettles, the report’s author. “However, known inequities need to be part of the discussion, which is why we included in our investigation college attainment projections by race and gender.”
Stella Flores, associate professor of higher education and director of access and equity at the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy at New York University, said the report is a ” necessary acknowledgement and attests to why we need to disaggregate data along an educational continuum that extends into employment sectors to more accurately understand the nature of the problem of underrepresentation.
“While a focus on employment should not be the only goal for higher education,” she added, “recognizing it as a necessary incentive and metric in the overall benefits of higher educational attainment is important and now a mainstay of how we look at our progress as a nation.”
Although the report criticizes the attainment goals for lacking “specificity about labor market aims and types of higher education degrees,” they remain. Thus, preventing “these gaps in achievement and attainment from widening,” is key. That, the report explains, means “populations that are lagging behind in education and the workforce need to be placed at the heart of efforts to increase degree attainment and college and career readiness.”
Whether or not these efforts are successful, and these traditionally disadvantaged adult populations remain severely underrepresented, is not just a matter of group prestige or bragging rights. Rather, the report calls for a more nuanced approach with initiatives paying greater attention to race and gender groups to thereby avoid exacerbating existing education and employment gaps between diverse cohorts.
The report, using census projections and historical college enrollment data, predicts that the nation as a whole will reach the 60 percent mark by 2041. However, African American men, American Indian/Alaska Natives and Hispanics are not estimated to reach the 60 percent mark even by 2060—the furthest out the study could project. African American women are expected to reach the 60 percent mark by 2058.
“By 2060, I’ll be 101 years old, and African American, American Indian and Hispanic populations will still not have met attainment goals,” Nettles said. “If college attainment efforts aren’t refocused, our country risks continuing and even broadening the current inequities in postsecondary education.”
Asians have already exceeded the 60 percent degree attainment goal while white women are expected to reach the goal by 2019 and white men by 2038.
Experts, educators, and the report’s authors believe closing the gaps will depend on the widespread implementation of specific interventions aimed at helping traditionally disadvantaged students complete their degrees and even, perhaps, a major overhaul of the nation’s higher education system.
Solutions range from “guided pathways” to help students better understand what courses they must take to graduate on time, to “dual enrollment” programs for students to earn college credit while they are still in high school. Some advocate for making America’s higher education system more student-centric. Others, including the report’s author, say better college preparation at the K-12 level is essential.
Joel Vargas, vice president of school and learning designs at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on creating educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations, said dual enrollment qualifies as one of the “targeted and tailored” strategies called for in the ETS report.
“Research on dual enrollment consistently finds that these groups of high school students benefit from completing college courses early, just as other students do, specifically in terms of college completion,” Vargas said. “I would submit that any strategy that helps these populations get college credentials is one worth aggressively pursuing and targeting at them, given that there exist so few evidence-backed strategies for these groups.”
Vargas also noted that “early college” schools, which employ dual enrollment, can be an important element of this intervention.
“These schools largely serve low-income youth and students of color,” Vargas said, “and about 30 percent nationally graduate high school with an associate’s degree.”
Nettles, of ETS, said one of the biggest challenges that many students from underserved populations face is that they have less access to teachers who are trained in the subject matter they are supposed to teach.
“The conditions of the schools are not the best,” he said. If dual enrollment “provides for some compensation for that problem, then it may be very helpful.”
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, said the ETS report places an important emphasis on the need to align college attainment goals with labor market demands.
“The labor market dimension to higher education goal-setting and reform in general is still the missing link,” he said.
Carnevale explained that although all 50 states have Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems that allow people to see how much money they are likely to earn if they enter a particular program in college, the systems aren’t being utilized.
“The notion that once we put the information out there everything will get straightened out is naive,” he said. “You’re gonna have to have counseling programs. You’re gonna have to do things like tell kids, ‘this program you’re going into doesn’t justify that big a loan and you won’t be able to pay it back.’ You’re gonna have to tell institutions, ‘that program you’re running, nobody gets a job that allows them to pay back their loans or get their money’s worth out of this program, and we’re not gonna give you public money for it.’ There has to be some aggression here.”
Similarly, the report notes that while degree attainment in and of itself matters, so too does the type of degree that various groups collectively acquire. It warns that the three underrepresented groups may be overrepresented among those who obtain two-year degrees, which ultimately do not command the same high salaries as those that usually come with four-year degrees.
Danette Gerald Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Lumina Foundation, said while the equity gaps that separate the degree attainment rates of African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians, from those of whites and Asians are “troubling, long-standing and pervasive,” no single strategy can eradicate them.
“Instead, we call for a completely redesigned postsecondary education system that meets the needs of today’s students,” she said.
In order for more African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians to earn degrees and other high-quality credentials that lead to further education and employment, Howard argues that the postsecondary education system must become more student centric. That is, it must focus on actual learning, as opposed to credit hours, and allow all learning to count regardless of where or when it is acquired. She also believes that it has to prepare learners to adapt their skills for the “ever-changing world of work that awaits them,” including jobs that don’t even currently exist.
As a result, Howard said that Lumina’s new strategic plan emphasizes the need for guided academic pathways that lead to high-quality credentials, as mentioned earlier. It also recommends that institutions track student progress early and often to identify challenges they may encounter and ensure that students receive specific academic, social and financial support to help them complete their degrees. The plan argues that states will play a critical role in higher education reform because “only states can enact the large-scale systemic change necessary to build the postsecondary learning system the nation needs.”
Others say college affordability has to be part of the discussion.
Debbie Cochrane, vice president at The Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS, cited figures from an analysis her organization conducted showing that low-income students at public four-year institutions have to pay 77 percent of their family income to cover the cost of college—”and that’s after all grant aid available to them is taken into account.”
Higher income students, on the other hand, only have to pay 14 percent of their family income, she said.
“When students can’t afford the total cost of college, not just tuition but their books, transportation and living costs,” she said, “they have to make choices that compromise their success and take out huge loans to afford the cost. It contributes to huge gaps in college enrollment and college success. The gaps that disproportionately affect underrepresented minority students as well.”
But even if policymakers find a way to help more students pay for college, the need for better academic preparation remains.
“Among the key elements for increasing college enrollment and degree completion are improving pre-collegiate academic, financial, and social preparation and the admissions test scores of underrepresented population groups,” the report argues. “Policies and practices aimed at improving the present conditions for under-representative and underserved students along these dimensions are likely to yield greater college and career readiness outcomes and in turn lead to greater degree attainment.”