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CBC Panel Takes Aim at Disparity in College Degree Attainment

Carrie Warick is director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network.Carrie Warick is director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network.

At the start of the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative conference, a panel, Access to Opportunity: Propelling Black Students, explored the disparity in college degree attainment between Black students and students of other races.

The panel, which was moderated by Autumn Arnett (a senior staff writer at Diverse), identified a number of the key issues that are preventing Black students from earning postsecondary degrees. An NCES survey found that, in 2013, overall 40 percent of 25 to 29 year olds had a college degree, but only 20 percent of Black 25 to 29 years olds did.

Black students have a slew of barriers to overcome on their path to and during college, panelists said. At a very fundamental level, the cost of education is a major barrier for Black families. As the cost of higher education rises, the economic outlook for Black families has not improved commensurately. A Pew Research Center analysis of Federal Reserve data found that the median wealth of White households was 13 times that of Black households in 2013.

Moreover, many Black students are attending high schools that do not offer academically rigorous classes, leaving them underprepared for postsecondary education. Panelist Wendell Hall, senior director of policy advocacy at The College Board, said a large percentage of Black students attend high schools that do not offer AP or honors classes. He referenced the 2014 Dear Colleague letter from the Office for Civil Rights that said that 1 in 5 Black students attend a high school that does not offer any AP class.

The college admissions process itself can also be daunting for students, panelists said. Some may have parents who did not attend college, meaning that they cannot rely on their family for help during the admissions process. For families in difficult financial circumstances, the college application fee can also deter students from applying to a lot of schools, preventing them from casting a wide net.

Finally, once they do get to college, Black students may find that there are new barriers to their success. The specific college environment may not be welcoming or attuned to their needs, or their success may be constrained by financial issues, such as the need to balance work and study.

Although the challenges to Black student success are vast and complex, panelists had a range of recommendations.

Some of the policy fixes that panelists suggested are ones that many policymakers and research organizations have actively promoted in recent years. Panelist Carrie Warick, director of partnerships and policy at the National College Access Network, identified three principal policy changes, starting with a call to simplify the FAFSA form, which is generally regarded as overly long and difficult to fill out.

The current chair of the senate education committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has long called for a much reduced FAFSA form. Warick said that year-round Pell Grants should be reinstated, which would allow low-income students to make steady progression on their coursework. She also said that students need better advising when they take out financial loans, to prevent them from getting in massive amounts of debt that they cannot hope to pay off.

These three policy changes would have a positive effect not just for Black student success, but for low-income students and students who are first generation to college more generally.

Warick said that her organization is focusing on setting the expectation among students that they will go to college early on in their K-12 years. “Early awareness is an expanding part of NCAN’s work. It’s focused on fifth- to eighth-graders and expectation setting that higher education is in your future,” she said.

Hall said that The College Board is well aware of the disparities in Black student achievement and is attempting to help address inequalities in the college admissions process by offering four college-application fee waivers to a limited number of students who take the SAT using a fee waiver. The College Board also launched free SAT prep tests in partnership with Khan Academy, in recognition of how expensive SAT tutoring programs have become.

Panelists said that the new College Scorecard, which the Obama administration just released on Monday, will help prospective students and their families evaluate colleges based on factors such as size, cost, and graduation rates. With the scorecard, students can compare similar institutions and determine which is a best fit for their interests.

The College Scorecard, with its focus on student outcomes, differs from existing ranking systems such as U.S. News & World Report, which evaluates colleges based on the sort of students it attracts, predicating high SAT scores and GPAs.

“Right now, I would say the incentives that colleges and universities have are really around prestige and exclusivity, which doesn’t really favor the people that this panel is trying to address. It doesn’t favor African-American students; it doesn’t favor disadvantaged students,” Zakiya Smith, strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, said.

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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