According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.6 percent of the American population is African American (U.S. Census Bureau, 2020). In 2018, educationdata.org looked at all undergraduates in the U.S. and found that 13.8 percent were Black (educationdata.org, 2020). This finding demonstrates significant progress in regard to access, with Black undergraduate percentages basically equal to the overall Black population in the U.S. This is good news. It means African American communities are as likely to see college as a place for them as other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S. This has not always been the case in American higher education and as a member of the higher education community, I am very pleased, maybe even proud that we have made such progress with regard to access.
(Your probably heard a "but" coming . . .) But, there is still considerable work we need to do across higher education to reach equity. The work we need to focus on now in regard to African American education involves the types of educational institutions African Americans attend or have access to and Black completion rates relative to other groups.
Black students are more likely to attend for-profit private institutions than all other race and ethnicity groups. Assessing students who completed degrees or certificates between 2013 and 2015, Black students were more likely to graduates from for-profit schools than other race or ethnicity groups with 28 percent of Black students completing their degrees at for-profits (Libassi, 2018). This is highly significant because for-profit students complete at lower rates with higher debt (Espinosa & Baum, 2019). Regarding completion, African Americans have a 6-year completion rate of 46 percent while White students have a 72 percent completion rate. And when we look exclusively at Black students starting in community colleges, the 6-year completion rate for a bachelor’s degree is less than 10 percent (Community College Research Center, 2020).
With community colleges serving such a significant portion of Black students, we need to make sure all institutional barriers and many social barriers are identified and removed to generate greater success for Black students, who typically bring more of life’s struggles with them to college than their white peers. While there are exceptions to this rule across the race and ethnicity spectrum, these tendencies are indisputable. Leaving their homes and neighborhoods to attend college, many students of color find the same racial biases (if not outright racism) on campuses across America. Some students even find an increase in these experiences as many leave majority-minority communities and enter predominantly white campuses. Black students report old stereotypes and bias across the academy. Black students commonly report microaggressions from some faculty and other students and acts of overt racism.
African American students often report a sense of isolation and cultural invisibility on campuses. This is especially true at institutions that have histories of exclusively white students, holding vestiges of whiteness embedded in the institution. African American students report being less likely than white students to be selected for positions of power and prominence in the student body. Black cultural markers are often not reflected in campus life, leaving many Black students feeling marginalized and longing for home. Like a long-term traveler or expatriate living in another culture, experiencing how other people live is interesting and educational, but it wears on a person over time. Most people need to touch on familiar values, norms and customs of the environments they were raised in on a regular basis to feel a sense of place and belonging. This sense of cultural familiarity is especially true when feelings of vulnerability or uncertainty arise. When stress enters our lives, cultural touchstones are important coping resources—this is where the idea of “comfort food” comes from. Learning environments across higher education are intentionally designed to stretch, push and expand students. This means they are constantly, by design, put in uncomfortable positions with a great deal of stress added to their lives. This is all done in an effort to help each student grow. The higher education learning environment is already difficult. For Black (and many other students of color), the complexities of this environment are compounded with a range of additional issues they encounter on a daily basis.
If we hope to graduate African American students at rates proportional to those of white students and place them in positions of influence in society at proportional rates, we need to increase both access and success. Regarding access to higher education, we have reached proportionality overall. The percentage of Black students attending higher education is approximately equal to the percentage of African American residents in the U.S. However, the access patterns need to shift, by decreasing the number of students who attend for-profit institutions and increasing the number of black students who attend selective universities. Regarding success in college, we need to see significant rate increases for BA/BS degree completion. Overall completion rates need to move from a six-year rate of 46 percent to something in the range of 70 percent. For Black students starting out in community colleges, we need to affect significant improvements if we hope to reach success rate near 70 percent. Black students starting in community colleges have a 6-year BA/BS completion rate at less than 10 percent. If we are able to achieve these outcomes nationally, we will be graduating a proportionate number of African Americans from colleges and universities.