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Lagging college graduation rates exacerbate racial inequity

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Nearly 20 million students are enrolled in college this year, but an estimated 40 percent — many of them students of color — will not graduate. These vast numbers point to an insidious problem often overlooked in today’s higher education debates: racial disparity in our nation’s college graduation rates.

Our system, as it stands, fails Black, Hispanic and Latino students. While about 2 of every 3 white college students will graduate, only 2 of 5 Black students and just over half of Hispanic and Latino students will. Tackling the student debt issue merits the attention of policymakers, but if they wave the wand of debt relief without addressing the gaps in college graduation rates, we will have failed future generations.

A broader reform package is needed to help address the education inequities in communities of color. Policymakers and universities should work together toward systemic solutions that focus on long-term change, not short-term fixes. Congress should pair any debt relief for former students with measures to assist the next generation of students by addressing graduation rates. A good start would be increasing the size of Pell Grants and designating federal funding to help schools address graduation rates among underserved students.

A college education is one of the surest paths to a better life, but earning a degree is what matters most. Higher education increases wages and enables economic mobility for graduates, not for those who attended for a year or two but failed to graduate. The numbers provide a strong case for refocusing our nation’s efforts on graduation rates:

  • The unemployment rate among college grads is 4.2 percent, but 6.3 percent for those who don’t complete their studies.
  • We know that those with a bachelor’s degree typically earn 66 percent more — $1 million more over their lifetime — than those with a high school diploma.
  • In fiscal years 2015 and 2016 alone, 3.9 million students dropped out of college — with debt.

With students of color more likely to experience obstacles that get in the way of finishing college than their white peers, these economic realities create a vicious cycle of inequities. Those with debt, but no degree, are unable to repay their loans and are burdened with debt for years to come.

Federal student debt relief would help Americans caught in this cycle, but it’s a one-time fix for a generational problem. Some of the most common reasons students drop out of college is affordability and a lack of support. Removing financial barriers through increased grants and scholarships — as opposed to federal loans — is one way to ease the burden on low-income students. One study found that every $1,000 in grants provided to students increase their chances of college completion by 1.5 percent to 2 percent.

We will only achieve racial equity if we go beyond who is able to enter the doors of higher education and focus on who exits those doors with a degree, but financial aid alone is not enough to get students to the finish line. Increasing student supports as well as advising staff are just as critical to ensuring underserved students have what they need to graduate.

A report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that college advising services can improve graduation rates. The federal government can help colleges improve graduation rates for underserved students by creating a dedicated funding stream to support such services and programs.

As leaders of two organizations focused on higher education, we have witnessed firsthand the role education plays in ensuring success for students. We’ve also witnessed the deep racial inequities that hold back students of color and low-income students. Getting students in the door of colleges and universities is important, but it has never been enough. This is our nation’s moment to get this right and to invest in graduates, not just in attendance.

Harry L. Williams, Ed.D., is the president & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. Jon Witter is the CEO of Sallie Mae, a consumer bank offering private student loans, financial literacy resources, and other financial products.

Tags college graduation rates Student debt Student loan forgiveness

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