Inequality ​in College Graduation Rate by Race

Davis Library
Source: Kayla Boswell

The Problem

In comparison to White and Asian students, it takes African American students almost twice as long to graduate from a public four-year university. The reasons for this discrepancy include financial strain and the number of black students already on campus, however, there are certain things universities can do to enact change.

College is a stressful time for any student. Navigating classes, making friends, and handling the heavy finances that come with college are not easy for anyone to handle. Now factor in race, and how that may affect the college experience. The inequity in the college education system by race is very clear. Simply walk around a college campus and it is easy to spot the differences. At a predominantly white institution (known more commonly as a PWI) racial differences are easy to spot because a majority of the students look the same. And while it may be beneficial to some, the rate for students of color, especially African American students, who graduate college in six years it at an all-time low.

An infographic showcasing the inequalities by race as well as some possible solutions to the problem.

Inside Higher Ed states that in 2010 28.7% of African American students graduated in six years, as opposed to 51% of Asian students. The main problem that needs to be discussed is why it takes black students so much longer to graduate than their white counterparts?

Root Causes of Inequality

Each case, like each student is individual; however, there are trends that have shown to have an impact on how long a black student may stay in college.

According to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, factors like a school’s geographic location, the number of black students already on campus, a school’s financial standing and the curriculum all have an impact on how long a student of color will stay on campus.

Geographic location has an undeniable impact on how long a black student stays in school. Schools located in rural areas have lower graduation rates for students of color; this can be seen at schools like Oberlin in Ohio or Carleton College in Minnesota.  Schools with a small black populations have a harder time attracting black students, and when they arrive, it is hard to be a part of a school where no one looks like you. Graduation rates for black students at schools like these are comparatively lower than schools in urban areas.

The number of black students on campus has a large impact on blacks students overall college experience.

Feelings of isolation, constant microaggressions, and ostracization can have a compounding effect on a person. Having a community of others who can relate to what you are going through may lessen the feelings of being alone.

At some highly ranked institutions, faculty and administrators make black students feel that they do not belong. This can cause major problems for students of color in fields that are highly dependent on professors and administrators. Studies show that black and Latinx students are more likely to drop out of a STEM field than other students, which at many institutions are highly funded disciplines. Non-inclusive curriculum, in addition to being made to feel out of place by those in charge, can have a compounding negative effect on a student’s desire to attend, or even finish school.

Finances have a large impact on whether anyone, regardless of race, may be able to attend school. Making institutions more affordable would increase the likelihood of students obtaining their degrees in a more timely manner.

In Real Time

RJ Woody is a 5th year graduating senior at UNC-Greensboro. He began his college tenure at NCCU, a historically black college in Durham, but transferred to UNCG to finish. Reflecting upon his own experiences, he recognized the impact that finances, as well as the difference that being at a Historically Black College (HBCU) in comparison to a PWI, can have on ones college experience.

Possible Solutions

Increasing the number of African American students who are able to come in and out of school in six years may seem like a large task but it is possible.  

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education states, “all told, there are 37 high-ranking colleges and universities that have a favorable black-white graduation rate difference … Two years ago there were only 30. Four years ago only 16 high-ranking colleges and universities.”

This shows that progress is happening, and it can continue to be made in the right direction. To ensure this trend continues, there are certain solutions universities can put in place to get the ball rolling.

Creating equity across disciplines by ensuring that universities put an equal amount of resources towards all studies, (not just the sciences) creates equal opportunities for all students to succeed.

By creating mentorship programs, students of color are able to create and foster lasting relationships. This provides a safe space, which alleviates a part of the social problem that comes with low graduation rates.

A racially equal college graduation rate is achievable, but will certainly take more than these steps. These are solid starting points that if enforced, can create tangible changes. 


“Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show.” Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show,

Green, Adrienne. “When Black Students Have to Balance Academia and Racism.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Jan. 2016,

Riegle-Crumb, Catherine, et al. “Does STEM Stand Out? Examining Racial/Ethnic Gaps in Persistence Across Postsecondary Fields – Catherine Riegle-Crumb, Barbara King, Yasmiyn Irizarry, 2019.” SAGE Journals,

Tate, Emily. “College Completion Rates Vary by Race and Ethnicity, Report Finds.” College Completion Rates Vary by Race and Ethnicity, Report Finds,