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7 fast facts about education equity gaps

February 26, 2020

By Kathleen Escarcha

Despite significant investment in broad student success initiatives, demographic disparities in graduation rates and career outcomes continue to persist.

We collected a few statistics about equity gaps and how they affect student success. Do you know all of these fast facts about equity gaps?

Achievement gap implies that the onus for the disparate outcome is on the student. That is, they failed to achieve something, and therefore, there exists a gap. Equity gap, on the other hand, refers to any disparity in a metric like graduation rate or term-to-term persistence along racial, socioeconomic, gender, or other major demographic groupings. Instead of, “what did the student do wrong?” we’re working together with our partners to ask, “what processes, policies, strategies, etc. did the institution put in place that created or exacerbated these disparities by race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.?”

1: Low-income students are more likely to experience “summer melt” than higher-income students

Summer melt is particularly acute among low-income and first-generation students. For instance, 13% of low-income students paid college deposits but don’t enroll the following fall, compared to just 8% of more affluent students, according to one study from Benjamin Castleman, a professor at the University of Virginia, and Lindsay Page, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Low-income students can melt during enrollment when they’re asked to verify income eligibility for federal aid. During each FAFSA application cycle, the Education Department aims to verify about 30% of all federal aid applicants. But most applicants selected for verification come from low-income families, reported Ashley Smith for Inside Higher Ed in 2018. The National College Access Network estimates that 50% of low-income students are selected for verification, and of those selected, 22% won’t finish applying for aid.

2: First-generation students are less likely to graduate on time

First-gen students are more than twice as likely to stop out within three years (33%) than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree (14%), according to a February 2018 study by National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And only 48% of first-gen students are on track to graduate three years after enrollment, compared to about 66% of non-first-gen students.

Part of the problem is that first-generation students are likely unfamiliar with the “hidden curriculum” that can determine students’ success in their first year of college, which includes navigating higher education bureaucracy and practicing good study skills. For example, vague or confusing academic policies can lead first-generation students to drop courses without understanding the potential impact on their financial aid or degree progress.

3: Black and Hispanic community college students are more likely to enroll part-time or stop out at least once

Nearly half of part-time community college students believe they’ll graduate within two years, according  to a report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement. But fewer than 8% will graduate in four years, according to Complete College America.

Students of color are more likely to enroll at part time. Eighty-four percent of Hispanic students and 81% of black students enroll part-time for at least one term, as compared to 72% of white students, according to research from EAB.

While many community college leaders assume the solution is to encourage part-time students to switch to full-time status, “for many of these students, life’s competing priorities ensure that attending full-time will never be a viable option,” explains EAB Director Christina Hubbard. Students who are juggling a full-time job or family care are more likely to enroll part time, so calls to convert them to full-time enrollees can be more harmful than helpful. Instead, colleges need to implement programs that adapt to the realities of part-time student experience, such as compressed terms or weekend courses, recommends Hubbard.

4: Students from underserved backgrounds are more likely to face basic needs insecurity

Sixteen percent of Latinx and 18% of black students at four-year institutions experienced food insecurity, compared to 9% of their white peers between 2011 and 2015, according to an Urban Institute analysis. Similarly, one study of five Canadian institutions found that 56% of Aboriginal and Indigenous students experienced moderate to severe food insecurity.

Students who experience food insecurity are also at risk of housing insecurity. Research shows that 64% of food insecure students (at both two- and four-year institutions) also experience housing insecurity.

5: First-generation students earn less than their peers after graduation

First-gen students receive an average starting salary 12% below the starting salary of their peers, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And the wage gap between first-gen students and their peers persists long after graduation.

First-gen men and women earn, respectively, 11% and 9% less per year (or $7,500 less and $4,350 less) than their peers, according to a study. And first-gen men who studied arts and humanities earn up to 17% less than their peers who studied the same subject.

6: Black students graduate with more debt

Black students owed 15% more than other students after graduation with an average debt of $34,010, compared with $29,669 for all students, according to a 2019 report on race and ethnicity in higher education from the American Council on Education (ACE). One-third of black students accumulated more than $40,000 in debt after graduation, versus 18% of students overall.

Black students were also more likely to borrow money for college, according to the ACE report. Among recipients of a bachelor’s degree in 2016, 86.4% of black graduates had borrowed money to finance their education, compared to 70.3% of white students, 67.3% of Hispanic students, and 58.7% of Asian students.

7: Diversity among faculty continues to lag compared to student diversity

Students of color make up 45.2% of the undergraduate population, compared with 29.6% two decades ago, according to the 2019 ACE report. Hispanic students have shown the most growth; 10.3% attended college in 1996 compared to 19.8% in 2016.

Yet diversity among faculty continues to lag. Forty-one percent of all full-time faculty in fall 2017 were white males and 35% were white females, according to NCES data. But only 6% of full-time faculty were Asian men; 5% were Asian women; and 3% each were Black men, black women, Hispanic men, and Hispanic women.

See more strategies to close equity gaps

Learn how the pressure from students and shifting demographics that are driving a new urgency among academic leaders to prioritize both greater numerical representation of underrepresented groups among faculty and a more inclusive environment for faculty, students, and staff.

As the community college landscape continues to evolve, leaders face a critical imperative: improve student outcomes for at-risk populations and close chronic gaps in achievement.

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