Congress: We must invest in students of color
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As Congress contemplates reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, or HEA, lawmakers need to ensure that a quality college education is within reach of students of color. Tangled up in legitimate concerns about the rising cost of college and student loan debt is the question of whether a college education is truly “worth it.” But the evidence is quite clear: A high-quality college degree is the surest path to the American middle class. In the wake of 2008’s Great Recession, 2.8 million out of 2.9 million new jobs with good benefits, including retirement accounts, health insurance, and vacation days created between 2010 and 2014, went to college graduates. Americans with a bachelor’s degree are 3.5 times less likely to be in poverty, 2.2 times less likely to be unemployed, and they earn $32,000 more per year than high school graduates. College graduates also live longer and are more likely to vote and volunteer.

The problem is, the most reliable indicator of whether someone has a college degree is their race or ethnicity. Recent reports by The Education Trust paint a stark picture of the inequities for students of color: Latino young adults are about two and a half times less likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than White young adults (17.8 percent vs. 43.7 percent). Black students who start bachelor’s degree programs are nearly 25 percentage points less likely to finish college than white students. While the U.S. high school graduation rate has never been higher, Latino and black students continue to face multiple barriers to earning more than a high school diploma. Students of color who enroll in college are far less likely than other students to attend institutions where most students graduate, and they’re far more likely to enroll in for-profit institutions that graduate few students and saddle them with far more debt compared to their white peers.

These differences are not due to the students. In fact, these disparities show that institutions should be doing more. The good news is that none of these outcomes are inevitable. Colleges that are intentional about supporting students and that align their resources in a way that focuses on student success are the ones driving social mobility in our country. Leaders at these institutions consistently analyze their data, find troubling trends, engage faculty to find solutions, and most importantly listen to students and make them part of the problem-solving process.

The Education Trust’s research also found that similar institutions serving similar students can produce dramatically different results. For example, the University of North Carolina–Wilmington graduated seven out of ten of Latino students in recent years, about the same as the graduation rate for white students. At the same time, the University of Texas at Dallas — another public institution with comparable entrance requirements and enrollment numbers — graduated just 54 percent of Latino students, a rate that’s 10 percent lower than that of White students.

There are also differences across institution types. For-profit colleges account for just 6 percent of college enrollment, but more than one-third of federal student loan defaults. Twelve years out of school, more than half of students who attended for-profit colleges default on their loans, compared with 17 percent of students from public four-year colleges, and 26 percent from community colleges. These differences cannot be swept under the rug.

As members of Congress consider a rewrite of the nation’s higher education law, we call on them to push for a tougher higher education accountability system that puts students first and refuses to let fraudulent and ineffective colleges off the hook. Here are three principles that should drive that new system:

  1. Federal law must maintain and strengthen existing safeguards governing for-profit colleges and career-training programs. Data show they are riskier bets for students and taxpayers alike.
  1. Institutions must be held to minimum standards for enrolling and supporting historically underserved students, with greater financial, academic, and non-academic supports for public and nonprofit colleges and universities serving higher percentages of these students.
  1. Colleges and universities must be rewarded for student success, particularly for historically underserved students, and sanctioned for underperformance, within reasonable time frames.  

Higher education has never been more important for our economy and our democracy. Our elected leaders are putting both at risk if they do not make high-quality higher education more inclusive and more equitable. As part of the process to reauthorize the HEA, any new system of accountability for higher education institutions must prioritize historically underserved students to ensure that the American Dream is truly available to all.

John B. King Jr., is president and CEO of The Education Trust. He served as Education secretary from 2016-2017. Janet Murguía is president and CEO of UnidosUS.