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HEA Reauthorization Can Reduce the Equity Gaps that Persist for Students of Color

A new Congress presents a new opportunity to restart the process of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA). Policymakers must reauthorize HEA with a focus on equity because students of color are still struggling to enroll, persist and complete postsecondary education. Policymakers must ensure that students of color have access to an equitable postsecondary education system by providing students from underserved populations with the necessary resources to help them succeed. HEA can help alleviate these barriers by implementing policies that provide students of color the support they need to earn their postsecondary degree or credential. It is time for a comprehensive HEA bill to better serve today’s students, especially students of color.

Alyse Gray ParkerAlyse Gray Parker


The percentage of students of color enrolling in postsecondary education is increasing. From fall 1976 to fall 2015, the percentage of Hispanic students enrolled in postsecondary education increased from 4 percent to 17 percent; the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 7 percent; and Black students enrollment increased from 10 percent to 14 percent. Since students of color are increasingly enrolling in college, it is essential that federal policy addresses the needs of these students.

One of the main barriers students continue to face is affordability and understanding how we can better serve students to access and complete FAFSA should become a federal policy priority. Students of color are more likely to be first-generation college students, and many first-generation students are completing the FAFSA on their own or with very little family support. In order to address this barrier, federal policymakers must continue to create and find strategies to make federal aid and the FAFSA more accessible. Research has shown that FAFSA completion is positively associated with enrolling in college. However, high school seniors in higher-poverty school districts are less likely to complete the FAFSA than students in wealthier districts.

Once enrolled, federal policymakers should continue to work with colleges and universities to fund and support students of color to stay enrolled at their institution. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, in 2015 Black students had the lowest persistence rate (66.9 percent) among all students and just over half of Black students returned to the starting institution after their first year (54.5 percent) and an additional 12.4 percent returned to an institution other than the starting institution. Many institutions have programs that work to increase retention for students of color, such as summer bridge programs. Federal policy can work to strengthen these programs at a broader level. Policymakers should ensure support programs that target persistence and retention are evaluated and understood, in order to address enrollment for underrepresented students.


Students of color are also less likely to complete their postsecondary degree or credential compared to their White peers, and the achievement gap between White students and students of color persists at every degree level. In the 2015-2016 academic year, about 53 percent of certificates were awarded to White students, compared to 47 percent awarded to students of color; 56 percent of associates were awarded to White students, compared to 44 percent of students of color; and 62 percent of bachelors degrees were awarded to White students, compared to 38 percent of students of color.  

India HeckstallIndia Heckstall

About 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020 and less than half of students of color are completing their postsecondary degree. Without postsecondary education, people of color will continue to struggle to remain competitive in the workforce. As students of color pursue more advanced degrees, the likelihood of them earning the degree decreases. Students of color are more likely to complete a certificate than they are to complete a bachelor’s degree. Federal policymakers and institutions of higher education should ensure that all students, especially students of color have the financial aid support to complete their postsecondary education. About 62 percent of students did not complete their postsecondary education due to unmet financial need. To increase students of color persistence and completion in postsecondary education, federal policymakers and leaders at higher education institutions must also provide the necessary resources and support to foster student success, such as offering on-campus child care and diversifying faculty on their campuses to create an inclusive environment.

Students of Color and Debt

Students of color are more likely to default on their federal student loans than White students. We know that students of color have less wealth, which means they must take on more student loan debt. We also know taking on more debt can lead to negative outcomes regarding their debt especially for Black students. About 49 percent of Black students defaulted on their federal student loans, compared to 21 percent White and 36 percent Hispanic. This is compounded with the lower earnings students of color receive after college. The earnings of students of color is significantly lower than White students no matter the education level. Black students with an associate’s degree earn about a median of $33,850, compared to $35,450 for Hispanics, $78,200 for Whites.

Wealth disparities have a profound impact on the economic future of adults of color. As we continue to address higher education policy at the federal level, we must remember the long term impacts policy has on both individual and societal outcomes.


To achieve an equitable higher education system, the next reauthorization of the HEA must ensure that the needs of students of color are being met. Students of color are struggling to pursue higher education and are paid the least amount in the workforce which does not help them repay their student loans and can decrease their chance of economic prosperity in the future. Postsecondary education provides many students especially students of color with economic opportunities and opens the door for more job opportunities. Even though federal policy has worked hard to reduce this barrier more must be done to ensure that all students are provided equitable opportunities to pursue postsecondary education. Education is the key to achieving economic prosperity especially for people of color.

Alyse Gray Parker is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in educational leadership and policy at The University of Texas at San Antonio.  India Heckstall is a policy & communications, program associate at Higher Learning. She also serves as co-chair of the Education Taskforce for Women in Government Relations. 

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