College Completion Gaps between Blacks and Whites: What Accounts for Regional Differences? College Completion Gaps between Blacks and Whites: What Accounts for Regional Differences?

November 1, 2010

Motivation for the Research
In the United States, the share of blacks who have completed four years of college is much smaller than the share of whites who have done so. A less known fact is that the size of this racial education gap differs across various regions of the nation. This paper explores the reasons for the differential college education gaps by region, focusing chiefly on adults between the ages of 25 and 34.

Research Approach
Two hypotheses are explored:

  1. that in some regions black children have lagged far behind their white peers in factors determining access to a college education; and
  2. that differences in location preferences of blacks versus whites drive regional differences in college completion gaps, via migration of college-educated adults of both races.

The approach is exploratory; that is, the research looks at whether or not plausible explanatory factors vary across different parts of the country in ways that may explain college completion patterns. If so, current information on differences in educational resources and opportunities for black and white children could foreshadow future differences in college completion rates between black and white adults by region. Moreover, future migration patterns could offset or reinforce regional education gaps by race, compared with what would be predicted on the basis of current indicators of family socioeconomic status, secondary school performance, and higher education opportunities.

The main data source is the U.S. Census Bureau, Census of Population. Additional data come from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (Common Core of Data, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and additional sources), the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, and prior research literature.

Key Findings

  • Gaps have widened in all regions since 1970, although they are much wider in some regions than others.
  • College completion shares have been growing for both blacks and whites in all regions; the wider gaps are caused by more rapid gains of whites, rather than by declines or stagnation in black shares of college completion.
  • Variation across regions in college completion gaps between blacks and whites is a product both of differences in past factors affecting access to college and of ongoing differences in location preferences of blacks and whites.
  • Differential location preferences are especially important in explaining the widening college completion by race for New England and for the Pacific region, while serving to narrow the gap somewhat in the Midwest.
  • Racial education gaps are likely to grow in the Northeast based on already observed differences in educational resources and opportunities for black and white students.

The existence of widening gaps provides an opportunity to understand better the mechanisms that drive differential educational achievement. Further research should focus on finer geographic units, such as states or metropolitan areas, in order to afford a closer look at educational policies.

For example, exploring the following questions may yield answers that provide a sound foundation for policy intervention:

  • What enabled whites in some areas to make such rapid gains in educational achievement?
  • Why did these same factors not have the same impact in other areas?
  • In any given area, why did these same factors not have the same effect for blacks as for whites?
  • What are the determinants of differential inter-area migration flows of black and white college graduates?

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