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Most states have set goals for the proportion of their residents that should have a college degree or certificate in the next few years.
But many of those states will not reach those goals if they don't close gaps between black and white and Latino and white adult students, according to a set of reports released today by the Education Trust.
Nationally, 30.8 percent of black adults and 22.6 percent of Latino adults have earned an associate degree or more, compared to 47.1 percent of white adults between the ages 25 and 64, according to the reports.
Ed Trust graded states in two areas: overall attainment for black and Latino adults and the gains states made for those adults since 2000, said Andrew Nichols, the group's senior director of higher education research and data analytics, who co-wrote the reports. But the organization also rated states on whether their gaps were larger or smaller than the average gap across all states.
Take West Virginia, for instance. Education Trust gave the state an F for its 24 percent black adult degree attainment and a C for increasing the attainment of black adults by 7.3 percentage points since 2000. But the state is rated as "below average" for its small gap between white and black students.
"For black folks in West Virginia, they have extremely low attainment, but white folks in West Virginia also have low attainment," Nichols said. "That's not something we want to applaud."
Forty-two states have set attainment goals in the footsteps of Lumina Foundation, which set a national goal of 60 percent of Americans holding a degree or credential by 2025. In 2009 President Barack Obama set a similar goal for 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to have earned an associate or bachelor's degree by 2020.
"We certainly think equity and racial and ethnic equity has to become much more of a focus of attainment goals in order for us to make the progress we need as a country," said Danette Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Lumina. "Unless more states focus on closing these pervasive and long-standing gaps in attainment that exist by race and ethnicity, we will not meet the outcomes we would like to see."
An analysis last year by the Educational Testing Service found that under the current rate of degree production and with existing achievement gaps, the federal government's target would be achieved by 2041, Lumina's goal could be met by 2056 and black, Hispanic and Native American populations wouldn't reach the federal goal until 2060.
Nichols defined the problem as an economic crisis. For both black and Latino adults, current degree-attainment levels are lower than the attainment level of white adults were in 1990, according to the Ed Trust report.
"A college degree is essential in a modern economy and folks need it to achieve an American dream," he said. "We want states to be transparent about the gaps, make them their own and take responsibility for educational and broader policies to improve attainment."
For Latino adults, immigration has played a significant role in their overall attainment rate. Native-born Latinos, for instance, are more likely to hold some form of a college degree, with a 29.8 percent attainment rate. The attainment rate for Latinos born outside the United States is 17.2 percent. However, even among native-born Latinos, the attainment rate is 20 percentage points lower than the rate for white adults.
The report also points out that degree attainment is lower among Mexican-Americans, at 17.4 percent, than for Puerto Ricans (30 percent) and Cuban-Americans (40 percent). This ethnic diversity among Latinos means that a state like Florida, with a high population of Cuban-Americans, received an A-plus in Latino attainment and an A in the attainment change since 2000 from Ed Trust. But states like California, Texas and Arizona, with high populations of Mexican-Americans, each received a D for their Latino attainment rates.
"The Latino adult population has increased 72 percent since 2000," said J. Oliver Schak, a senior policy and research associate for higher education at Ed Trust, who co-wrote the reports. "The white population has remained flat and the black population has grown about 25 percent, so it is increasingly critical for institutions and states to focus on the success of students of color and first generation."
The gaps differ by degree level. For instance, the gap between black and white adults at the associate-degree level is one percentage point and between Latino and white students is 3.4 percentage points. However, the discrepancy is larger at the bachelor's degree level, where 14 percent of black adults and 11 percent of Latinos have a bachelor's degree compared to 23.7 percent of white adults.
"What we have in this country is a stratified education system and stratified social system," Nichols said. "You see a lot of black and brown and low-income families iced out of four-year educational opportunities and pushed toward community colleges."
Certificates and two-year degrees can help increase employment options, Nichols said.
But "we have concerns to some extent that black and brown students will essentially be pushed toward a community college degree due to systemic inequalities in this country. We understand states are including certificates in attainment goals, and that's fine, but we want to ask states to improve so that certificates aren't the only opportunities for black and brown students," he said.
Ed Trust recognizes that those discussions on the state level may be politically uncomfortable, but they shouldn't shy away from focusing on race in reforms like guided pathways or developmental instruction, said Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at Ed Trust.
States will often attempt to capture black and Latino students by using terms like "at-risk" or "low-income" in policy decisions, but ultimately, they may end up losing those students because the policies are too broad, she said.
"We have to make sure race is at the center of student-success strategies," Jones said. "If states want to see outcomes, they need to rethink their investment strategy … about how to emphasize and focus on outcomes, incentives and rewards for students of color."
Howard said there are states that have recognized the importance of centering race in policy discussions to increase attainment rates. She points to efforts in Colorado, for instance, where state officials are closing equity gaps.
"Colorado made equity the centerpiece of the attainment agenda," she said. "They went institution by institution and developed specific plans to help learners at those institutions meet specific attainment goals. And they worked with faculty to make sure they were prepared to teach a much more diverse student body."
Colorado has a 37.1 percent attainment rate for black adults and 22.2 percent for Latinos. However, the state was ranked "above average" by Ed Trust for its large Hispanic-white and black-white attainment gaps.
"In no state did we see black or Latino degree attainment surpass that of the white population, so the work is not done," Nichols said. "The conversation often tends to be focused mostly on income or economic status, but there is a significant amount of research that shows socioeconomic mobility and gaps cannot be explained by just income. Race is a factor."