The State of Higher Education Equity

The U.S. requires a well-educated workforce to grow our economy, strengthen our democracy, and solve big problems at home and abroad. And individuals with a college degree benefit from more job security, employment opportunities, and higher wages. Yet, today, the U.S. lags other nations in the share of our population with a college degree. As others have expanded access to higher education, we’ve stagnated. Why? It’s because the 7,000 colleges and universities across our states and territories still aren’t doing a good enough job getting Black and Latino Americans — whose population numbers are on the rise — across the finish line. And too many policymakers and state leaders are letting them get away with it, failing to make decisions that would increase college access and completion, particularly for historically underserved groups of students. This project offers state-by-state snapshots of where we stand in the quest for racial equity among degree-holders, how far we have to go, and what we need to do to get there.

What is degree attainment?

Much of Ed Trust’s recent higher education work has focused on graduation or completion rates, which represent outcomes for a particular group of students at colleges and universities. But this project is different and much broader. Here, we examine the education levels of all adults in the United States. Specifically, we are focused on degree attainment, which is the share of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 that have earned an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree.

Why is degree attainment important?

As our society continues its transformation from an industrial economy to a more knowledge-based one, a college degree becomes more and more essential. By 2020 about 65 percent of American jobs will require some form of college, compared with just 28 percent in 1973. Earning a college degree provides more job security, employment opportunities, and higher wages. Higher levels of degree attainment are also associated with more widespread social benefits. For example, more tax revenue is generated and fewer people rely on public assistance or social “safety net” programs when degree attainment is higher. In addition, increased levels of educational attainment are associated with less crime and incarceration, better health, more volunteerism, higher levels of voting and political engagement, and more charitable donations and philanthropic contributions.

Why focus on racial equity?

Over 40 states over the past decade have set goals to increase their state’s share of adults with college credentials and degrees. In many of these states, achieving these “degree attainment” goals will be directly related to their state’s ability to increase the shares of Black and Latino adults in those states that have college degrees, particularly as population growth among communities of color continues to outpace the White population and as older White workers retire and leave the workforce. In addition, earning a college degree is the most certain pathway toward upward social mobility. This is especially important for Black and Latino Americans, who face systemic barriers that inhibit their opportunities to secure the American dream.

Click below to see maps summarizing the State of Degree Attainment in each state

Black adults are less likely to hold a college degree today than White adults were in 1990 — roughly 25 years ago. Also, today Black adults are two-thirds as likely to hold a college degree as Whites.

“If state leaders are serious about racial equity and reaching their goals to increase the number of college-educated residents in their states, they need to be honest about what their data are telling them about Black, Latino, and other racial or ethnic groups."

- Andrew H. Nichols

Check out the map below for glimpse at the findings and then click on the icons to the left to download the full brief.

Color Coded Map of United States

Latino adults are less likely to hold a college degree today than White adults were in 1990 — roughly 25 years ago. Also, today Latinos are only half as likely to hold a college degree as Whites.

“If state leaders are serious about racial equity and reaching their goals to increase the number of college-educated residents in their states, they need to be honest about what their data are telling them about Black, Latino, and other racial or ethnic groups."

- Andrew H. Nichols

Check out the map below for glimpse at the findings and then click on the icons to the left to download the full brief.

Color Coded Map of United States

Have Questions? Reach out to our related staff

Andrew Nichols
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Andrew Nichols

Senior Director of Higher Education Research and Data Analytics

In his role as the senior director of higher education research and data analytics, Andrew helps develop a research…

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J. Oliver Schak

J. Oliver Schak

Senior Policy and Research Associate for Higher Education

Oliver designs and conducts analyses related to access, affordability, and student success in higher education. He supports The Education…

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Wil Del Pilar
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Wil Del Pilar

Vice President of Higher Education Policy and Practice

Wil Del Pilar, Ph.D., serves as Ed Trust’s vice president of higher education policy and practice. In this role,…

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