Big Gaps In Two Big Gap Studies

Last week both the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Reports Highlight Disparities in Graduation Rates Among White and Minority Students”) and Inside Higher Ed (“‘Gaps Are Not Inevitable'”) reported on two large studies by The Education Trust of the graduation rate gap between white and African-American students and betweenwhites and Hispanics. Even aside from the fact that the Asian gap was apparently not studied, there is a Big Gap in both gap studies.
Noting in its press release that “60 percent of whites but only 49 percent of Latinos and 40 percent of African Americans who start college hold bachelor’s degrees six years later,” The Education Trust said their studies “dig beneath national college-graduation averages and examine disaggregated six-year graduation rates at hundreds of the nation’s public and private institutions.” That deep digging produced evidence — hold your hat!—that minorities do better at some institutions than others.

We identify public and private four-year institutions that appear to serve their black and white students equally well—that is, where both groups graduate at similar rates. We also identify public and private institutions that have a lot of work to do to catch up: Their graduation rate gaps are among the largest in the country.


Exactly why that is true is never explained — unless you regard quoting statements such as UNC-Greensboro Vice Provost Alan Boyette’s explanation that minority success “is part of our mission. We don’t just want to provide access, we want our students to succeed” as an explanation.
Both studies, however, reflect the belief that the explanation lies with the institutions, not with the students.

The average black student, we know, leaves high school with a weaker academic record than the average white graduate, so where’s the mystery? Until somebody fixes the high school problem, there’s not much colleges and universities can do.
Or is there?
For the past several months, we’ve been digging beneath the averages and looking at data from individual institutions in our College Results Online database. We’ve found that some institutions have horrendous graduation-rate gaps between white and black students—well above the national average. And it turns out that other institutions have no gaps at all. Indeed, in dozens of colleges, black students graduate at rates equal to or higher than their white counterparts.
In other words, it’s not entirely about preparation, and wide gaps in the graduation rates of white and black students are not inevitable. Our analysis strongly suggests that what colleges do with and for the students they admit matters a great deal.

And:

It’s true that lower college-going rates among Hispanics cause part of the attainment gap. But a significant portion also results from low graduation rates among those who do enter college. Currently, fewer than half of Hispanic students who enter four-year colleges and universities graduate within six years, compared with about 60 percent of white students.
To improve degree attainment among Hispanic students, colleges and universities simply must enroll more of them. But it’s just as important that these institutions also boost their graduation rates and close graduation-rate gaps.

In short, the institutions themselves deserve either praise or blame for the graduation rates of their students, and The Education Trust liberally ladles out both, its press release for example announcing that its reports found both “smashing success” and “shocking irresponsibility.”

Using several years of data from College Results Online — a unique Web-based tool that allows the public to view college graduation rates by race, ethnicity, and gender for four-year institutions across the country—these reports highlight institutions that are doing well and expose those that are missing the mark on graduation equity, some of them by miles.

Note well that term graduation equity. The clear message here is that if all racial and ethnic groups don’t graduate at the same rate, their institution is inequitable, in effect discriminating against those falling behind in the graduation race. It is an article of faith in higher education circles these days that “equity” demands preferential treatment of minorities, such as lowering the admissions bar for them. Query: if admissions equity requires lowering admissions standards for minorities, does “graduation equity” require lowering graduation standards for them?
In order to support the charge that differential graduation rates can be (usually are?) evidence of inequitable treatment, the Education Trust studies purport to compare comparable institutions with comparable students but with wildly varying graduation rates.
From the press release:

The new reports demonstrate that similarities between schools do not necessarily result in similarities in minority graduation rates. At peer institutions—schools with comparable institutional and student characteristics—the gaps for minority student groups run the gamut from abysmal to exemplary.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, a 22 percentage-point gap in success rates separates white and African-American students, who graduate at 52 percent and 30 percent, respectively. But at a peer institution, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, the graduation rates among black students are dramatically different. On average, 56 percent of African-American students at UNC-Greensboro graduate within six years, compared with 51 percent of white students….

But are the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro really “comparable institutions” with “comparable … student characteristics”? The students at UNCG are 20.8% black, 66% white, and only 2.6% Latino and 3.4% Asian. The University of Illinois at Chicago students are 8.7% black; 44.6% white, 16.2% Latino, and 23.5% Asian. Moreover, I would imagine a large number of the Illinois students come from Chicago, a city of nearly 3 million people while Greensboro is under 225,000, although the UNC-G students probably come from all over North Carolina.
More important than their skin color, however, are the actual qualifications of the students. Are they “comparable”? Can’t tell from these reports. The biggest gap in these two gap studies is the absence of information about the relative qualifications of the students. It is simply impossible to conclude that one institution has been a “smashing success” with its minority students while another has demonstrated “shocking irresponsibility” without presenting data about the relative qualifications of its black, Hispanic, white (and Asian) students.
In short, when The Education Trust concludes confidently (Black Gap, p. 1) that “[i]nstitutions that have demonstrated the capacity to graduate white students at high rates should be able to serve black students equally well,” without regard to the qualifications of its black and white students, it is not analyzing data but preaching political correctness.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

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