The Economics of Higher Education, Part 3: Why Do Fewer Blacks Graduate?

(Photo: Will Folsom)

The black-white education gap has been widely observed at many age levels. In a new working paper called “Race and College Success” (abstract; PDF), Peter Arcidiacono and Cory Koedel examine why blacks who are admitted to college are so much less likely than whites to graduate:

Conditional on enrollment, African American students are substantially less likely to graduate from 4-year public universities than white students.* Using administrative micro data from Missouri, we decompose the graduation gap between African Americans and whites into four factors:  (1) racial differences in how students sort to universities, (2) racial differences in how students sort to initial majors, (3) racial differences in school quality prior to entry, and (4) racial differences in other observed pre-entry skills.  Pre-entry skills explain 65 and 86 percent of the gap for women and men respectively.  A small role is found for differential sorting into college, particularly for women, and this is driven by African Americans being disproportionately represented at urban schools and the schools at the very bottom of the quality distribution.

* “At around 40 percent, six-year graduation rates for African Americans are over twenty percentage points lower than for whites (DeAngelo et al., 2011, National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).”


"...this is driven by African Americans being disproportionately represented at urban schools and the schools at the very bottom of the quality distribution."

What is the implication here: that African Americans are disadvantaged because they come from the "bottom" schools? Or are these lousy schools lousy, because the students did not learn to be disciplined and did not learn to delay gratification etc.?


I agree this suggests parents matter.

Indeed, I've analyzed a research paper comparing early 20th century Danish to Italian immigrants that shows economically quantifiable differences in the outcome for GRANDchildren.

Given that African-Americans were violently confined to inferior schools (or no school at all) until my lifetime, it would be weird if there were not an achievement gap directly attributable to "parents."

The question is: are are we closing that gap, and how can we eliminate that gap more quickly?

Alex in Chicago

Dissapointing that the abstract does not appear to address that many blacks are placed in schools that are too competitive due to Affirmative Action programs. Thus a one who may be a B Student at Illinois State, ends up dropping out after 2 semesters at University of Illinois.


Wow seriously. So it's affirmative action's fault because those students shouldn't be in competitive schools to begin with?

Let's just ignore the one who do succeed, right? They can't have any positive affect on the problem.

Do us a favor and never speak on Affirmative Action again clearly you have an agenda that is completely opposite of improve things for African Americans.


Darren, not all criticism of affirmative action is meant to harm blacks. Your immediate jump to this conclusion is unjustified.

There have been several serious papers purporting to show this very effect, and in fact, the study this post is about can be interpreted to support it as well. This is not to say it is established, only plausible. And if AA actually harms blacks by promoting an educational mismatch, it is not helping them to support it. You may want to tone down the self-righteousness and check the data.

Think of it this way, if a large portion of the difference between white or asian students and black students is explained by the lack of skills in the latter, how do they get into the same universities? We should not discount the possibility that the paucity of education available to urban youth (of all races) is compounded by the problem of getting into schools where that handicap is most pronounced.

Research I would like to see would be the comparative quality of schools entered by the various races from poorly performing urban schools, matched for academic achievement. If AA is a problem, we should see white students from bad high schools get into lower quality colleges than their black peers, and graduate in higher numbers from equivalent programs. If that is not the case, the theory may not work.



I went to Purdue in '03 and worked with a woman from Gary, IN who was at that time a fifth year senior. She graduated from her public high school with a 4.0 GPA. Despite her high GPA she flunked over half her classes as a freshman because she was so far behind in what incoming freshman were expected to know. So imagine how less ambitious students from her school performed.

Tony T

Not sure at all what this paper concludes other than there are differences.

Would blacks who attend the same college as their white highschool friends be expected to have a higher, lower or equal college graduation rate?

Enter your name...

I believe that the main conclusion of the paper is "it's mostly not the fault of the university", since two-thirds of the excess in black women's failure and six-sevenths of the excess in black men's failure are due to a lack of "pre-entry skills".


The study is no surprise due to blacks disproportionately being in inferior schools. These schools, unfortunately, graduate students whether or not they have any capabilities.

Now that charter schools (which have as high or higher black enrollment than public schools) are reaching maturity, a good study would see how blacks who graduated from charter schools do in comparisaon from public school students in the same cities.

My guess is they will do much better.


One factor that would be interesting to study is how significant well-intended scholarships may have had on drop out rates. I went to a fairly competitive grad school and my African Americans friends all had full ride scholarships often with living stipends also. We know that people value things more that they have to pay for them. It makes sense that dropping out of a school that cost you next to nothing is a much easier thing to consider than dropping out of a school that you wanted to go to so badly that you racked up $50,000 or more in student loans.

(To be honest, I also had a full scholarship with stipend in grad school as well and I really do think I did not work as hard as I would have had I chose the same school and went into debt for the same education.)

david a

I remember in my teen age years having discussions and arguments with my father on affirmative action. He was adamant against it. I was in favor of it, but of course young and idealistic. We had many discussions on this and I remember clearly the things he said to me over and over again. They were:

"Nothing replaces hard work in school. If you give someone a diploma and they have not earned it, then no one will respect that"

"Your setting people up for failure when you send them into places they are not qualified to be at. Then when they fail they will resent you for putting them there in the first place."

"The standards and grades needed to graduated from high school and college will go down and down. You just wait and see. You will find kids graduating from high school that can't read, and graduating from college that can't think"

"In 40-50 years a college education will mean nothing, it will be devalued to that point. Anyone who wants to get ahead will be required to have a graduate degree "

"I'm not against change. I just want to make sure the change is an improvement. This is not an improvement."

At the time I just dismissed his criticism as my cranky old man. Now over the years I think he was wise to foresee the problems we now have.



I think I've had enough. So I'll leave with this.

Yes, after being at a disadvantage for 200 years blacks will perform poorly in school. Yes they will have a hard time.

That's not the point of Affirmative Action. The point is to allow for an opportunity to succeed.

So the "you are setting them up failure" argument is not relevant to the goal of Affirmative Action.

"Nothing replaces hard work in school. If you give someone a diploma and they have not earned it, then no one will respect that”

Affirmative Action does not give your a free diploma, it gives a black student a chance to attempt to succeed in a place, that because of an historical disadvantage, they never would have been allowed to be in the first place.

So essentially these arguments against Affirmative Action can be summarize as thus:

Due to a historical disadvantage, black students aren't equipped to succeed in the more rigorous schools. While currently Affirmative Action gives them the opportunity to try to succeed(and a few do), we would prefer that opportunity be removed. We would prefer that blacks only be allowed into colleges that will accept students with their poor academic background. A background they have because of the historical disadvantage.

Or let's put it another way:

A white man and a black man both own farms. The white man steals the black man's crop, confiscates his tools and forces the black man to use inferior tools that leave his soil barley able to support any crop. Then later the white man apologize, says what he has done is wrong, gives the black man back his tools and frees seeds for a very profitable crop.

A neighbor however rallies against this small token of good will. The neighbor argues that giving the black man seeds is a waste because the black man's soil can barley grow anything and he is very likely to grow little to no crop. The black man ask if he doesn't get the seeds who will they go to and the white nab says, to the neighbor of course. The black man is furious and the neighbor wonder whys he is so upset.

I hope that helps at least one soul understand.



I find it so depressing to think that affirmative action is still needed to help minorities get into college. The real problem is not racial discrimination in college admissions, but the bad schools which leave minorities less well-prepared for college, hence, less likely to get in on merit.

It would be far more sensible to put society's resources into early education so that minorities can successfully compete without the help of affirmative action.