Missing Pieces in the College Completion Puzzle

Published feb. 29, 2016

Black history month affords an opportunity to look backwards to glean lessons to leap forward. Any historical assessment of access to postsecondary education for black Americans will find that there has been tremendous progress. Aspirations for higher education among black young people are high, suggesting that they have great faith that degrees from our nation’s higher education institutions will provide opportunity for economic advancement. On the whole their faith is well grounded. But there is compelling evidence that it takes more than a college degree to advance in today’s economy.

Despite progress in access to higher education, black students start considerably behind their more affluent white peers, in part due to well-documented structural inequity in our society. Black students are disproportionately represented in less well-funded two-year and four-year open access institutions. They are more likely to be from a low-income family. Their parents are less likely to have attended college. And their families have significantly fewer financial assets in comparison to their white counterparts, in part as a result of the lack of intergenerational wealth transfer and unequal access to benefits available to whites, such as the GI Bill, fair access to credit, and the ability to purchase homes in neighborhoods of one’s own choosing.

Unequal Degree Payoff

Black students fortunate enough to surmount these formidable structural barriers and earn degrees are better positioned for economic opportunity than black students who only finish high school, but their degrees do not pay off in the same way that they do for white students. The data paint a sobering picture on which the completion movement has been largely silent.

In "A College Degree is No Guarantee," a Center for Economic and Policy Research report, authors Janelle Jones and John Schmitt present findings on labor market outcomes for recent high school graduates using an approach developed by Federal Bank of New York researchers Jaison Abel, Richard Dietz, and Yaquin Su (2014). The analysis found that black college graduates have higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, and lower wages in comparison with their white counterparts across all degrees.

In 2013, 12.4% of black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed—more than double the unemployment rate for white college graduates in the same age group. In the same year, more than half of black college graduates held jobs that did not require a four years degree in comparison to a third of their white peers. While earnings typically increase as young college graduates enter the work force and gain experience, black graduates are more likely to be underemployed in comparison to all other college graduates at every age. Shockingly, this pattern holds even for STEM degrees. The study results found that more than 40% of black engineering graduates were unemployed or held jobs that did not require a four-year degree. The gaps are disconcerting and raise serious questions about the transparency and depth of the college completion agenda.

Labor Market Inequities

The sobering statistics on how black college graduates fare in the labor market calls for a modernization of the completion narrative. We need to broaden the one dimensional narrative that college completion is the ticket to economic opportunity and advancement and address the reality these young Americans face as they transition from postsecondary into the workforce. Acknowledging the differential payoff for degree completion is a powerful first step toward equitable opportunity for economic advancement for young American degree earners of all races.

Closing the information gap on degree attainment and earnings outcomes is an important step towards helping black college goers successfully navigate the transition from college to the labor market. Transparency and information are only partial steps in what must be a more comprehensive solution. Preparation, choice of degree, access to social and employment networks, and prowess in negotiating salaries all factor into black students’ prospects for employment and advancement. But there is compelling evidence that black college graduates face racial discrimination as they transition from college to employment. Multiple audit studies featuring black and white job applicants with identical qualifications have found employer preferences for the white candidates. Creating equitable opportunities for economic advancement requires the systematic dismantling of employment discrimination. The completion agenda is incomplete until it acknowledges the barriers young black college graduate face as they enter the labor market. Addressing this issue is a step towards an inclusive labor market economy where young Americans of all races have equitable opportunities for employment and economic advancement and labor market discrimination is indeed history.