The Many Forms of Postsecondary Inequity

New federal data highlight differences in educational outcomes across many individual variables.

August 25, 2020
 
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It's unlikely to surprise anybody who reads this website closely or regularly that different groups of students succeed in higher education at widely varying rates. New federal data, however, highlight just how many characteristics can appear to be an advantage -- or a disadvantage -- when it comes to postsecondary attainment and completion.

A set of studies released by the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics in the last several weeks digs deeply into the center's 2012-17 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study to reveal how students who first enrolled in college in 2011 fared within six years, with a focus on their rates of persistence, attainment, transfer and withdrawal. The two most recent reports, released last week, focus on "Six-Year Persistence and Attainment at Any Institution for 2011-12 First-time Postsecondary Students" and "Six-Year Withdrawal, Stopout and Transfer Rates for 2011-12 First-time Postsecondary Students."

We're used to seeing data like these show that historically underrepresented groups of students -- those who are Black and Hispanic, first in their families to go to college, adults or from families with lower incomes -- fare worse than their peers, and the new studies reveal those gaps all too starkly. While a total of 36.8 percent of all students had earned a bachelor's degree and 10.9 percent had earned an associate degree within six years:

  • Only about a quarter of first-time college students in 2011 who were Black (22.7 percent) and Hispanic (23.6 percent) had earned a bachelor's degree by 2017, compared to 55.3 percent of Asian students and 43.4 percent of white students. More than four in 10 Black students (43.2 percent) and a third of Hispanic students (34.3 percent) had not gained a degree or credential and were no longer enrolled, compared to 29 percent of white 2011 enrollees and 18.5 percent of Asian students. (The NCES study does not report separately on American Indian students, but groups them in an "other or two or more races" category.)
  • Students who were the first in their families to go to college were half as likely as their peers who were not (18.6 percent versus 41.6 percent) to have attained a bachelor's degree within six years, and significantly more likely to have left college without a credential (43.4 percent versus 28.7 percent).
  • Veterans were half as likely (15.9 percent versus 37.2 percent) to have earned a bachelor's degree as nonveterans.
  • Nearly three in five 2011 enrollees whose parents had a bachelor's degree (58.7 percent) had earned a bachelor's degree in six years, compared to fewer than a third of those whose parents had some college education (29.1 percent) and fewer than one in five (19 percent) of students whose parents had a high school diploma or less.
  • Two-thirds of dependent students from families earning $90,000 or more earned a bachelor's degree within six years, compared to a third of those from families earning from $30,000 to under $60,000 (34.9 percent) and a quarter (25.6 percent) of those earning under $30,000.

But differences emerge in other realms, as well.

More than half of students who were enrolled continuously (51.4 percent) earned a bachelor's degree within four years, compared to 17.2 percent of those who stopped out of college once and 4.8 percent of students who stopped out twice. And those who were always enrolled full-time were significantly likelier to earn a bachelor's degree than were those who were enrolled at least partially part-time (51.5 percent versus 35.5 percent).

Students who started college more than a year after they graduated high school were about one-fourth as likely (12.2 percent versus 44.6 percent) to earn a bachelor's degree within six years.

The impact of transferring institutions or credits on student outcomes cut in sometimes unexpected ways.

Students who did not transfer were modestly more likely than those who did (38.1 percent to 34.2 percent) to earn a bachelor's degree within six years. But students who attempted to transfer credits from one institution to another were actually likelier (42.7 percent) to have earned a bachelor's degree than were those who didn't transfer at all.

The direction of the transfer made a big difference. More than half of students who transferred from one four-year institution to another (56.1 percent) earned a bachelor's degree, compared to 42.7 percent who transferred from a two-year to a four-year institution and 25.2 percent who transferred from a four-year to a two-year college.

The impact of working on postsecondary attainment also varied.

Students who did not hold a job were likelier to earn a bachelor's degree within six years (40.4 percent) than were those students who worked 16 to 34 hours a week (35.7 percent) or 35 or more hours a week (16.5 percent). But students who worked 15 or fewer hours a week were the likeliest of all to graduate -- 67.1 percent of them did so.

Working off campus put students at a disadvantage, though. Those who worked at least some on-campus hours were more than twice as likely to earn a degree within six years than were those who worked exclusively off the campus (66.2 percent versus 28 percent).

Another paper released last week digs deeply into the outcomes of the students who either withdrew, stopped out or transferred institutions.

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