According to our recent Broken Mirrors reports and web-based State Equity Report Card, few states are doing enough to ensure that their public two- and four-year colleges enroll and graduate Black and Latino undergraduates at percentages that reflect the demographics of state residents. To make matters worse, our findings reveal that both groups are vastly underrepresented among students and degree earners at public four-year institutions in nearly every state we analyzed. This is very concerning, since higher education is supposed to be the key to success. Earning a bachelor’s degree is the surest route to a good career and financial stability; and those without one are in danger of being left behind economically.

This has profound implications for America. The nation’s economic destiny will be written by an increasingly diverse workforce, which means that educational equity and economics are closely intertwined. So, it is disheartening that at a time when most decent jobs require a college education, our leaders seem so intent on cutting public higher ed funding and making it harder and costlier for many students (especially, students of color and students from low-income families) — aka America’s future workers and taxpayers — to attend, much less complete, college. If policymakers aren’t addressing higher ed equity, they should be.

To get a better sense of what’s happening, though, let’s look at whether equity at public four-year colleges has improved since the turn of this century.

I will focus on two key metrics from our reports that measure equity at public four-year colleges: Black/Latino Representation Among Undergraduates at Public Four-Year Institutions (Metric 2 in the reports) and Black/Latino Bachelor’s Degree Earner Representation (Metric 5). These metrics compare the racial and ethnic makeup of undergraduates and bachelor’s degree earners in each state to a demographic benchmark that is based on the state’s population that could benefit from a bachelor’s degree — specifically, the percentage of Black or Latino residents in the state, ages 18-49, with a high school diploma (or GED) and no bachelor’s degree. For example, if 15% of a state’s residents who fit our criteria are Black and 12% of bachelor’s degree graduates are Black, then the state’s score for bachelor’s degree equity is 80 (score = percentage of Black bachelor’s degree graduates ÷ benchmark x 100 = 12% ÷ 15% x 100 = 80). We would also assign this state a grade of B- for bachelor’s degree earner representation using a standard grading scale.

In order to examine trends over time, I calculated the enrollment and bachelor’s degree metrics at the national level from 2001 to 2016 using data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the American Community Survey (ACS). I chose this time frame because 2001 was the first year ACS data was available, and older statistics on percentages of Black and Latino residents are not as comparable to data provided by the ACS, since previous decennial census data may have missed large swaths of undocumented immigrants. Still, this should have been ample time for states to have made some headway on boosting the share of residents attending and completing college. Here’s what I found:

Finding #1: Demographic benchmarks have risen as the number of Black and Latino residents has grown.

The share of undergraduates at public four-year colleges or universities who should be Black or Latino has steadily increased this century. From 2001 to 2016, the percentage of Black residents rose 2.2 percentage points, from 13.2% to 15.4% percent (Table 1). The share of Latinos grew even faster, from slightly more than 12% to 20.4% — or an 8.3 percentage point increase (Table 2).

To keep pace with the rising diversity of the U.S. population, public colleges and universities should have dramatically increased the numbers and percentages of Black and Latino undergraduates attending and completing college; a failure to do so would only create a greater shortfall of Black and Latino undergraduates and graduates in relation to their demographic shares. For instance, while an 11.5% share of Latino college students would have resulted in an A grade in 2001 (Score = 11.5% ÷ 12.1% = 95), that same share of enrollment would have earned an F in 2016 (Score = 11.5% ÷ 20.4% = 56). Note that the percentage of Latinos enrolled at public four-year colleges did, in fact, increase during that period, but not enough to match demographic growth. Meanwhile, the percentage of Black undergraduates at these institutions barely budged, meaning Black underrepresentation became even more acute during that period.

Table 1: National Public Four-Year Black Enrollment and Bachelor’s Degree Earner Representation Benchmark, 2001-16

Number of Black residents*Benchmark: Percent enrollment/degree earners who should be Black*Actual percent of enrollment at public four-year institutions who are Black% Black enrollment/BA degree earners needed for an “A-” or higher on metric 2 and metric 5
200110.1 Million13.2%10.5%11.9%
200611.8 Million14.2%11.0%12.8%
201112.3 Million14.9%11.1%13.4%
201612.5 Million15.4%10.7%13.9%
2001-2016 change+ 2.4 Million (+23%)+2.2 pct. pts+0.2 pct. pts+2.0 pct. pts
* Number/percentage of residents, ages 18-49, with high school diploma and no bachelor’s degree who are Black

Table 2: National Public Four-Year Latino Enrollment and Bachelor’s Degree Earner Representation Benchmark, 2001-16

Number of Latino residents*Benchmark: Percent enrollment/degree earners who should be Latino*Actual percent of enrollment at public four-year institutions who are Latino% Latino enrollment/BA degree earners needed for an “A-” or higher on metric 2 and metric 5
20019.3 Million12.1%7.2%10.9%
200612.2 Million14.6%8.5%13.2%
201114.6 Million17.7%11.1%16.0%
201616.6 Million20.4%15.0%18.4%
2001-2016 change+7.3 Million (+78%)+8.3 pct. pts+7.8 pct. pts+7.5 pct. pts
* Number/percentage of residents, ages 18-49, with high school diploma and no bachelor’s degree who are Latino

Finding #2: Black student representation at public four-year institutions has declined since 2001.

The state of public higher education equity has deteriorated for Black students since 2001. The share of Black enrollment at public four-year institutions has been stuck around 11% since the late 1990s and has not kept up with growth in the Black population. Using the Black enrollment representation metric in our report, we can see that the score for Black enrollment at public four-year institutions fell from a peak of 81 (B-) in fall 2005 to 68 (D+) in fall 2015 (Figure 1). The last three years (2014, 2015, and 2016) saw the lowest scores for Black enrollment representation since detailed statistics on national enrollment were first published three decades ago. This is extremely troubling since students can only graduate from college if they are able to enroll at an institution and progress toward a degree.

The share of Black bachelor’s degree earners has also declined in the last decade and a half, even as the share of Black bachelor’s degree recipients has risen slightly since 2001 — from 8.4% to 9.0%. More Black residents may be earning degrees, but they’re losing ground relative to our benchmark for degree earner representation. Bachelor’s degree earner representation scores actually fell from 63 (D-) in 2001 to 58 (F) by the mid-2010s, and sluggish growth in Black enrollment in recent years (as well as stagnant graduation rates) means that Black underrepresentation among bachelor’s degree earners could worsen in the near future.

Finding #3: Representation of Latinos at public four-year institutions has steadily increased in recent years

Latino four-year enrollment and bachelor’s degree earner representation has improved over the last decade. As the Latino population grew rapidly, Latino college-going surged, too — especially in recent years. Between 2001 and 2016, the number of Latino undergraduates at public four-year institutions nearly tripled, to 926,000 (or 15.0% of enrollment). Meanwhile, the Latino public four-year enrollment representation score went from 57 (F) in fall 2004 to 74 (C) in fall 2016 (Figure 2). These are impressive gains, to say the least.

Public four-year institutions are also graduating more Latinos. The Latino bachelor’s degree earner representation score rose from 49 (F) in 2005 to 63 (D-) in 2016. While the share of bachelor’s degrees going to Latinos is still far below the proportion of Latino residents nationwide (12.8% vs. 20.4% respectively), according to our analysis, the representation of Latino bachelor’s graduates has spiked in the last few years.

If current trends continue, equitable representation among four-year students and bachelor’s degree earners could conceivably be achieved within a generation, thereby shrinking the enormous gap in college attainment between Latino and White adults.

A Path Forward

Policymakers and researchers need to take a closer look at these trends and identify a path forward. Despite the recent growth in college opportunities for Latinos, public colleges and universities have a long way to go before their students and graduates reflect America’s rich racial and ethnic diversity. Leaders, therefore, should focus on ways to keep the momentum going on improving Latino representation among bachelor’s degree completers, since Latinos will soon comprise a large share of all Americans and U.S. workers.

And given the stagnation and decline in Black bachelor’s degree representation, leaders and policymakers must find ways to enroll and graduate more Black students at four-year colleges, so they may partake in the increased earnings, economic stability, and employment opportunities that a college degree generally affords. The persistent and severe underrepresentation of Black undergraduates at public four-year colleges suggests that leaders and policymakers should redouble their commitment to ensuring that public higher education is working to counter the racism and broader injustices that Black residents often experience, rather than reinforcing them.

Federal, state, and institutional leaders must do more to address injustices in higher education and offer more affordable access and support to low-income students and students of color. The guiding questions outlined in our report can help advocates and policymakers determine what’s happening in their state and to push for change.