Huge Minority Gaps in Higher Ed

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

The Lumina Foundation produced a report last week detailing disturbing gaps in college degree attainment rates by race. Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics are lagging woefully behind whites and Asians in college graduations. The report finds that 59.1 percent of Asians have a degree, compared with 43.3 percent of whites, 27.1 percent of blacks, 23.0 of Native Americans and 19.3 of Hispanics.

That disparity isn't new, according to Lumina President Jamie Merisotis, but the trend appears to be getting worse among younger students ages 25-29. Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics have even lower rates than the broader population. "This cohort is really disturbing," he said. "Their education levels could be decreasing."

Without intervention, the problem will literally multiply as Hispanics are the fastest growing part of the United States population. Merisotis says incremental innovations like online colleges aren't going to turn around the trend. "What we really need to change is the fundamental delivery of higher education," he said.

That means finding alternative financing mechanisms for schools by paying them based on the skills their students demonstrate rather than time in a chair. It also means including alternative forms of post-secondary education, like military service, in college credits.

That's a lot to handle from a policy viewpoint, but it won't do any good without the involvement of communities and K-12 public schools. Lumina is starting several pilot programs in disadvantaged metropolitan areas to get community leaders and teachers to set educational goals for the area and help them mark their progress. That's going to take a while to get up and running, and it requires cooperation from locals who have lots of other things on their minds. "There's a whole bunch of bottom-up stuff that needs to happen," Merisotis said.

What will be the impact on the country if this college attainment gap continues? What would be most effective in changing it? Is it possible to transform higher education into a skills-for-dollars model? Who needs to be involved in engineering such a transformation? How can college become more affordable? Are there ways to target Hispanics, blacks, and Native Americans for higher ed help without running afoul of the law?