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Racial Disparities, Gender Gaps Persist in Student Achievement in Higher Education

October 05, 2011


Large disparities persist among racial and ethnic groups even for younger generations in higher education, and women are surpassing men in postsecondary attainment, according to ​Minorities in Higher Education—Twenty-Fourth Status Report: 2011 Supplement from ACE.

In 2009, 37.8 percent of U.S. adults aged 25-29 had at least an associate degree, a slightly higher percentage than the 35.1 percent of adults 30 and over who did. However, in terms of degree attainment by race/ethnicity, only two groups (whites and Asian Americans) made notable gains over their elders, while African Americans and Hispanics made no progress and American Indians actually earned associate and bachelor's degrees at lower rates.

Notably, women in their late 20s surpassed older generations in postsecondary attainment across all racial/ethnic groups except American Indians. Minority men of the same age have fallen behind, with the exception of Asian Americans.

Minorities in Higher Education—Twenty-Fourth Status Report: 2011 Supplement is an update to a biennial report that is widely recognized as the most authoritative national source on advances made by students of color in higher education.

"Increasing postsecondary access and success for students from all racial and ethnic backgrounds is essential for the United States to better compete in the global economy," said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad. "We should use this information to understand where and when the achievement gaps occur and develop solutions to reach the right students at the right time."

The report is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. This update uses the most current data available (from 2008 or 2009, depending on the source).

Among the other findings:

High School Completion

  • The high school completion rate has remained stagnant for 18- to 24-year-olds at around 82 percent on average for the past 20 years, and women have outpaced men in every racial/ethnic category.
  • Hispanics made the largest improvement in this category, although they still have the lowest completion rate at 71 percent.
  • Among other races/ethnicities, Asian Americans have the highest completion rate (91 percent), followed by whites (88 percent), African Americans (78 percent), and American Indians (72 percent).

College Enrollment

  • 19 million students, representing nearly 5 percent growth over one year, are enrolled in postsecondary education, a modest increase of 10 percentage points over the past 20 years. Thirty percent of those students are people of color.
  • However, racial/ethnic disparities in college enrollment worsened slightly over this time because some groups' rates have improved faster than others.
  • The proportion of young women enrolled in college increased from 32 to 46 percent between 1990-2009, an increase almost three times that of young men (32 to 37 percent).
  • Hispanics experienced the largest gains in college enrollment during this time but still have the lowest college enrollment rates.

Degrees Conferred

  • The number of associate and bachelor's degrees awarded between 1998-2008 grew by 40 percent and 41 percent, respectively. People of color received 24 percent of bachelor's degrees in 2008, up three percentage points from 1998.
  • Hispanics led all other ethnic/racial groups in the growth rate for the conferral of both associate and bachelor's degrees.
  • The number of master's and doctoral degrees conferred between 1998-2008 grew by 51 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Women and minorities account for much of the growth in both these numbers, with women now receiving more doctoral degrees than men.

A free PDF of the report is available on the ACE website.

MEDIA CONTACT: Ginnie Titterton ▪ 202-939-9368 (office) ▪ 202-360-9484 (cell) ▪

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