For Black Students, College Degrees Are Separate and Unequal

Amid the loudly conflicting and competing claims of victory last month when the U.S. Supreme Court punted its affirmative-action decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin back to the lower courts, I heard at least three main positions: applause because affirmative action remains unchanged for now; calls to replace race-based affirmative action with a class-based version; and, finally, a soothing message about how black students are already succeeding in higher education, followed by a question—do we really still need affirmative action?

That last message is almost 20 years old, and its provenance can be traced back to at least 1997, when the College Fund/UNCF (formerly the United Negro College Fund) first reported extraordinary growth in the education achievements of African-American women, with more black women enrolled in college than black men. And last April, the National Urban League’s “State of Black America” report proclaimed that, for 2013, there are 3.5 times as many black students enrolled in college as was true 50 years ago and five times as many black adults with a college degree.

Before we uncritically celebrate those statistics, it is high time to notice that a majority of the surge is from black-student enrollment in degree programs that are not just separate but unequal.

Which is to say, gains in college enrollment and degree completion for black students are overwhelmingly due to increased attendance at for-profit institutions and two-year colleges. And for far too many black students, the degrees they are pursuing there lead to higher levels of debt and substantially lower earnings than the debt and earnings potential of students with degrees from four-year institutions.

According to data compiled by the daily news site Colorlines, from 2004 to 2010 black enrollment in for-profit bachelor’s programs grew by 218 percent, compared with a much more modest 24-percent increase at public four-year colleges and universities. The result? The two top producers of baccalaureate degrees for black students in the Class of 2011 were the University of Phoenix and Ashford University, both for-profits. That is a significant change. In 1972 such institutions accounted for only 18 percent of degrees awarded to black students; by 2010 they represented the choice of 44 percent of black undergraduates.

In addition to the rapid increase in black-student enrollment at for-profit colleges, the rise can also be attributed to the increase in community-college enrollment. According to information available from Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, almost one-third of all degrees earned by black students are from community colleges. Some states boast much higher numbers. In California, for example, almost 70 percent of black students who attend college at all are in two-year institutions.

What all this means is that, taken together, community colleges and for-profit colleges account for close to 70 percent of black-student enrollment in college.

In 2007 the U.S. Department of Education prepared a report on minority-serving institutions that listed for-profit and two-year colleges right alongside the 100 or so historically black colleges and universities that most of us think of as the institutions primarily serving black students. Today only 12 percent of black students ages 18 to 24 receive their degrees from such institutions, and roughly 38 percent enroll at either private or public four-year institutions.

The issue of where black students are getting their degrees is important because all college degrees are not created equal.

Of students who graduate from for-profit programs, 98 percent do so with crushing debt, struggle to find employment up to a year after graduation, and earn lower salaries than do students who graduate from four-year institutions. That disparity is also troublesome for students who graduate with two-year degrees. To place those statistics in a material context, consider data from the Council on Foreign Relations’ project Renewing America. In 2011, on average, 30- to 34-year-olds who had only a high-school diploma earned $638 per week, and their peers with bachelor’s degrees earned $1,053. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the difference adds up to more than $500,000 over the course of a lifetime.

If students’ intention in obtaining college degrees is to change their economic trajectory, build wealth for themselves and future generations, better insulate themselves and their families from economic upheaval and recession, and contribute to the tax base of their towns, cities, and the nation, then they would do well to avoid both for-profit institutions and two-year colleges, and to opt instead for degrees from four-year institutions. However, that is not what is happening.

The attitudes of black students on pursuing a college degree “by any means necessary” mirror overall attitudes in society about the importance of degrees in our increasingly knowledge-based labor market. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center Survey, in 1978 the public was evenly divided over whether a college education was necessary to get ahead, but by 2009 73 percent of American adults agreed that in order to get ahead it was necessary to get a college education.

But many black students lack the relevant information about what kinds of degrees matter. Their decisions may actually exacerbate the social and economic inequalities a college degree is meant to ameliorate.

While it is hard to argue that the pursuit and attainment of college degrees is anything but good news, as we prepare ourselves for another round of wrangling over affirmative action, we may need to come to a full stop, or at least pump the brakes a little before declaring that the racial gap in college achievement is a thing of the past. Statistics about college enrollment and completion for black students bear some warnings. It’s time to focus more on the quality of institutions conferring their degrees.

Noliwe M. Rooks is an associate professor of African studies and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies at Cornell University. Among her books is White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African-American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education (Beacon Press, 2006).

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