Written by: Reagan Flowers, Ph.D.
I recently attended a conference, and a loaded question raised from a member of the audience was, “When it comes to student attainment, which factor has the potential to hold a student back more? Is it ethnicity or socio-economic background? Their questions inspired me to challenge the audience to think about what it looks like when both play a major factor in student achievement and attainment. This month, I’m exploring these great questions.
Academic Challenges Related to Ethnicity
One of the most concrete ways to look at the effects of ethnicity on academic attainment is by looking at completion rates. Overall, when looking at all races, more than 44 percent earn an associate’s degree or higher, while nearly 30 percent complete their education with a high school diploma.
High school completion rates are similar when you begin to look at ethnicity. However, it’s beyond high school where huge disparities appear. For example, only about 35% of Blacks and 25% of Latinos earn an associate’s degree or higher.
Of course, this is not the only way to measure attainment. For example, let’s take a look at literacy. Though the 2019 national reading assessments showed minority students scoring higher than previous years, the disparities are still apparent. Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander students all showed average scores of at least 7% less than their white counterparts.
Socio-economic Student Attainment by the Numbers
Next, let’s examine socio-economic status beyond how most people view it, i.e., growing up in a financially disadvantaged neighborhood. Students with low socio-economic means also mean growing up in households with low academic attainment and facing set social perceptions.
The socio-economically challenges students face do impact their attainment, and it is quite eye-opening. First, many of these children enter high school with literacy skills five years behind high-income students. Second, the high school dropout rate for these students is five times higher than high-income students.
In addition, the STEM success rate of low-income students is much lower than that of students who are not of minority backgrounds. Finally, students from the wealthiest families are eight times more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than the most socio-economically challenged students.
A Complex Picture
Though we can compare and contrast the impact of socio-economics and ethnicity on academic attainment, we must keep in mind that it’s not quite so simple in the real world. For example, we see it every day in the underrepresented students being served at C-STEM. The majority of these students face achievement gaps due to both socio-economics and ethnicity.
Indeed, the numbers certainly show this. All ethnic groups compared to White Americans experience higher poverty rates, including 39% of Black children and 33% of Latino children. On top of that, unemployment rates for Black Americans are double that of Caucasians.
Comparing Student Attainment Outcomes
When we look at these two factors related to student attainment, gaps in literacy are significantly higher for socio-economically disadvantaged students. Thus, socio-economic factors seem to have a more significant impact on high school completion. In contrast, completing associate’s and bachelor’s degrees seems to be affected equally by socio-economics and ethnicity.
As I said before, however, the students who struggle the most are likely facing both challenges. The school districts these students live in have trouble securing the resources they need, and parents are working hard just to make ends meet.
STEM is a good answer. It provides students a pathway to social mobility for themselves and their families. However, we must continue to address gaps by providing supplemental resources and igniting students’ passion for literacy, rigor, and hands-on learning. Moreover, addressing socio-economic and racial challenges changes the trajectory to secure better jobs and build better futures for generations to come.
As a country, we must start by addressing our biases to help set students up for success, recognizing the specific needs of students from different backgrounds. Every student is unique with varied abilities, and when there is equity, there is opportunity. Through supplemental camps/after-school/literacy programs, educator training, community partnerships, economic development, public health initiatives, and so much more, we are more inclusive of those who are underserved and need us most.