Racial Gaps: Does the Public Care?

New study documents continuing gaps (and some progress) in educational attainment of black and Latino students compared to white and Asian students. Another study suggests most people aren’t that worried about the issue.

August 12, 2016

Postsecondary educational attainment in the United States continues to vary significantly by racial and ethnic groups -- and in some cases within racial and ethnic groups. That is the overall finding of “Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups, 2016,” released Thursday by the U.S. Education Department. And generally black and Latino students lag their white and Asian counterparts.

The same day that report was released a study on American attitudes toward gaps in education attainment was also released. That study, published in Educational Researcher, the flagship journal of the American Educational Research Association, found that while a majority of the public cares about closing the educational attainment gap in American society that is based on family wealth, concern about the issue is much less evident when it comes to reducing racial and ethnic gaps in educational attainment.

The Numbers

The data from the Education Department are already out of date, as they are from 2013, but this is the norm for much federal data, and the figures focus on long-term trends.

The total college enrollment rate (the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled) at two- and four-year colleges and universities increased from 32 percent in 1990 to
 40 percent in 2013. The rate for Asian-American students has been higher throughout that period, starting just under 60 percent and ending at 62 percent.

The Asian rate is higher than those for students who are white (42 percent), black (34 percent), Latino (34 percent), Pacific Islander (33 percent) and American Indian/Alaska Native (32 percent).

The white-Hispanic gap in the total college enrollment rate narrowed between 2003 and 2013 (from 18 to eight percentage points). But the white-black gap in the total college enrollment rate did not change during this period.

The data show wide variations within some racial and ethnic groups. For example, among Hispanic groups, the total college enrollment rate in 2013 ranged from 25 percent 
for those from Guatemala to 62 percent for those from Venezuela. Among Asian subgroups, the enrollment rate ranged from 
20 percent for Bhutanese young adults to 84 percent for an “other” category that includes those with Indonesian and Malaysian backgrounds.

The pattern of Asian students (over all) performing at higher rates than other groups is evident in other data as well. For instance, the 2013 graduation rate was 59 percent for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who started bachelor’s studies at a four-year degree-granting institution in fall 2007. That rate varied from 71 percent for Asian students to 41 percent for both black and Native American students.

Public Attitudes

The new federal data show that racial and ethnic gaps remain significant. But the research published in Educational Researcher raises questions about public support for closing such gaps at all levels of education.

The research found that Americans are more concerned about gaps between poor and wealthy students, and that they back policies to close such gaps. For racial and ethnic gaps, not so much.

The study’s authors are Jon Valant of Tulane University and Daniel Newark of the University of Southern Denmark. They found that 63.7 percent of American adults say that it is “essential” or “a high priority” to close the income-based gap in student test scores. But only 35.6 percent and 31 percent say the same thing about the black-white gap and Hispanic-white gap, respectively.

The data are from a survey conducted by YouGov, an internet-based research and polling organization.

With a focus on K-12 issues, respondents were asked about willingness to pay for teacher bonuses, school vouchers or summer programs -- if they would be used to minimize educational gaps. On average, people were again more likely to support such efforts oriented around wealth gaps than about race gaps.


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