Tracing Latino educational inequality
In Massachusetts, Latino college graduation gap among widest in US
MASSACHUSETTS IS FALLING FAR SHORT when it comes to educating Latino students, with a four-year college graduation gap between white and Latino students that is the 37th worst in the country. The wide gulf in completion rates exists despite the fact that Massachusetts Latino students demonstrate higher achievement in K-12 education than Latinos nationally, according to a study prepared by Education Reform Now, a policy-oriented partner of Democrats for Education Reform.
The gap in Latinos obtaining four-year college degrees is the most striking finding in a report that identifies widespread shortcomings in the college pathway for minority and lower-income students in Massachusetts.
Black and Latino students are far more likely than white students to attend a public two-year community college in Massachusetts, the study reports, and their graduation rates at those schools are substantially lower than those for their peers at two-year colleges nationally.
Black and Latino students are also far more likely to attend Massachusetts high schools where few, if any, students complete the state’s “MassCore” curriculum, a sequence of high school courses required for admission to a public four-year college or university.
Black students were more than two-and-half times more likely than white students to be enrolled at these high schools, while Latinos were more than twice as likely as whites to attend these schools. Almost 80 percent of white students in the state completed the MassCore curriculum, while just over half of all black and Latino students did so.
In recent years, there has been lots of encouragement for students from lower-income families to consider first attending a lower-cost community college as a more affordable route to eventually obtaining a bachelor’s degree. “It is a misguided approach,” says the report, coauthored by education policy analysts Michael Dannenberg and Konrad Mugglestone.
Going to a two-year school with the idea of then transferring to a four-year institution to obtain a bachelor’s degree decreases by about 30 percent the chances of completing a four-year degree, the report says.
That has particularly devastating consequences for Latino students in Massachusetts. Not only are black and Latino students in Massachusetts twice as likely as white students to enroll at two-year community colleges, Latino students are 20 percent more likely to do so than their peers nationally. The heavy enrollment of Latino students at community colleges occurs despite the fact that they perform better than black students in the state on high school measures of college readiness.
The report says the heavy tilt of Latino enrollment toward community colleges is driven by a constellation of cost-related factors. Latino students, it says, often come from “debt-averse families,” who are skeptical of taking on the larger loans needed for more expensive four-year schools. Meanwhile, the average net total cost of the state’s public four-year colleges is 25 percent higher than the national average, while state student financial aid is lower than in other nearby states.
On top of all that, Latino families in Massachusetts have median family incomes that are more than $6,000 lower than the national Latino median family income. By contrast, white and black families in Massachusetts have median family incomes that are considerably higher than their peers nationally.
“The state is effectively channeling Latino students into under-resourced community colleges, which affects their ability to graduate and subsequently generate higher earnings,” said Alexandra Oliver-Davila, executive director of Sociedad Latina, a Boston education and workforce-focused nonprofit. “Our leaders must take action to end this cycle of educational and economic inequality.”
“Across all subgroups, Massachusetts’ community colleges are severely underperforming,” says the report. Black and Latino students in the state do particularly poorly, with graduation rates for black community college students 30 percent lower than national averages and those for Latino students 40 percent lower than for their peers nationally.
One bright spot in the report: While the state has among the largest graduation gaps between whites and Latinos for four-year public higher education institutions, Massachusetts has the third smallest white-black gap on that measure.
The report says the longer time public higher education students who do graduate take to complete their degrees puts a further burden on all students from lower-income backgrounds. The average public higher education bachelor’s degree recipient takes more than five years to complete a program, rather than four, while the average community college student takes more than three years to graduate from a two-year college. Getting students to complete degrees on schedule would cut the cost of their education by 20 percent at four-year schools and 33 percent at community colleges.
“Time to degree” are the three key words in the college affordability discussion, Dannenberg said in a recent Codcast interview.
The report recommends a statewide “free college” program that would cover all costs of two- or four-year public college, after deducting any expected family contribution, for students from families earning less than $75,000 a year.
It also calls for all high schools to make the MassCore curriculum track available, with added support programs to help students get through the course sequence. MassCore should be the required track that all students are on unless they and their parents opt-out of it, says the report. “By making MassCore the default track, policymakers would ‘nudge’ students to pursue better academic preparation in high school and empower them to have a greater choice among colleges,” write Dannenberg and Mugglestone.
The report also calls for targeted aid to public colleges and universities that is directed at approaches that have been demonstrated to raise completion rates. The report cites several two- and four-year schools across the country that have adjusted course offerings or instruction methods in ways that have resulted in a significant boost in completion rates and a narrowing or elimination of graduation gaps between white and minority students.
The report estimates that the recommendations, if fully implemented, would cost, at the lower end of estimates, $535 million per year. The authors say they have identified revenue sources or offsets of $636 that would more than cover that amount, including eliminating capital gains tax breaks for Massachusetts colleges or universities with endowments over $500 million and dedicating a large portion of the millionaire tax, if the question goes to the ballot in November and passes, to a “free college” initiative.
“There need to be increased resources to ensure that a loud and clear message is delivered to all students that, yes, you can go to college,” said Dannenberg. That includes new investments in public higher education institutions, he said, but they must be paired with accountability for results. That could mean “changing the institution’s leadership if sufficient progress is not made,” he said.Dannenberg pointed to the state’s 1993 education reform law, passed 25 years ago, which combined new resources and reforms to drive student improvement in the K-12 system. “There is an opportunity for the state to lead once again,” he said. “This time in higher ed, we think, using the same recipe.”
This story, which was based on an early embargoed copy of the report, was updated to reflect an adjustment in the lower-end estimate of the cost of proposed recommendations in the final report released on May 24.