The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 22, 2013

Where do African American students go to college?

August 22, 2013

Even 50 years after the March on Washington, black and Hispanic adults are less likely than whites and Asian Americans to have college degrees. Many factors contribute to these differences, including the lower income and asset levels of black and Hispanic families and the lower-quality elementary and secondary schools in the neighborhoods in which they live. Black and Hispanic youth are less likely to graduate from high school than white and Asian youth and they are less likely to be academically prepared for college when they do graduate.

There is, however, some encouraging news about black college enrollment. The percentage of black recent high school graduates enrolling immediately in college is now nearly the same as the white rate: in 2011, it was 65 percent compared with 69 percent. In 1982, it was 40 percent for blacks vs. 53 percent for whites.

Where students go to college matters

But just going to some postsecondary school isn’t all that matters. Getting people to college is important to help them find opportunities for rewarding work that pays well. But even for those who go to college, where they go matters.

There is considerable evidence that even among similar students, those who begin at four-year colleges are much more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than those who begin at two-year colleges. Enrolling in the most selective colleges for which they qualify increases students’ chances of completing their degrees.

Still, for many students, community colleges are the best option. They can earn short-term certificates or associate degrees that prepare them for specific occupations and are usually more affordable. Two years at a four-year college is unlikely to lead to this outcome. For some students, especially those seeking short-term certificates, for-profit institutions can also be among the best options. But tuition is much higher in this sector than in public institutions and it is not easy for students to sort the good programs out from those that fail to offer where almost no one succeeds in earning valuable labor market credentials.

Black students—and particularly black women—disproportionately enroll in for-profit institutions. While some of these students have good outcomes, many do not. In particular, a very high percentage of students enrolling in these institutions borrow, and they borrow much more on average than those attending public colleges. Interestingly, Hispanic students disproportionately enroll in community colleges, not in the for-profit sector. These two sectors are the points of access to postsecondary education, enrolling students with limited academic preparation and preparing them for jobs with living wages that require short-term credentials.

About 14 percent of all undergraduate students in 2011-12 were enrolled in for-profit institutions. This included 19 percent of black men and 13 percent of Hispanic men. Among black women, 23 percent enrolled in for-profit colleges, compared with 17 percent of Hispanic women.

In 2011-12, only about half of all African American undergraduate students took out federal loans to pay for college and only 9 percent borrowed as much as $10,000 for the year. Among those enrolled in community colleges, 78 percent took no federal loans and less than 1 percent borrowed as much as $10,000. But among those enrolled in the for-profit sector, three-quarters borrowed, and 15 percent borrowed $10,000 or more for the year.

Helping students make informed choices is the next step

It’s important that we turn our attention to helping African American students make informed choices about college. It’s no longer enough just to open the doors. We have to assure that students whose families, schools, and neighborhoods lack the experience and resources to guide them into the best choices are supported in directions that generate real opportunities for long-term success and upward mobility. But how we do this is tough. With the release of school report cards last winter, the president took a good first step. Perhaps some of his new proposals will also translate into policies that can help at-risk students make better choices.

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