A college education continues to be a chief conduit to economic parity for African Americans, according to a new report by the National Urban League.

“Reports continue to demonstrate that the earnings of college grads over their lifetime are significantly higher than for those without,” said Chanelle P. Hardy, senior vice president for policy and executive director of the NUL’s Washington Bureau, during a call with reporters. “That’s why the economic policy priorities of the National Urban League are not only focused on job creation, entrepreneurship and closing the wealth gap, but also on ensuring that our students are able to access education and skills development throughout the course of their careers.”

For example, in 2014, young African Americans were unemployed at a rate of 20.7 percent, compared to 17.5 percent among young Whites, Hardy cited. But, those numbers “improved dramatically with a college degree,” she added, to jobless rates of 13.1 percent for African American college graduates and 8 percent for their White peers.

Given the advantageous impact of a college education on Black prosperity, the NUL’s report, “From Access to completion: A Seamless Path to College Graduation for African American Students” sought ways to optimize Black tertiary education outcomes, officials said. The paper’s solutions focused on the federal Pell Grant program, which provided financial aid to over 9 million students in 2011-2012, including 62 percent of all African-American college students.

“In this paper we explored to find the characteristics of the typical African-American student and make specific recommendations that will improve their college success rates, from access, retention to completion,” said Susie Saavedra, the NUL Washington Bureau’s senior legislative director for education and health policy.

The “typical” Black college attendee (65 percent) tends to be non-traditional or independent, meaning he or she is primarily an (older) employee who is balancing family and school. Independent African-American undergraduates are more likely than others to be single parents (48 percent compared to 23 percent of Whites and 34 percent of Latinos); most are enrolled in two-year institutions (42 percent compared to 23 percent who are enrolled in four-year institutions); another 27 percent are enrolled in private, for-profit institutions—a much larger percentage than for any other group.

Those qualities can create a barrier to accessing institutional, state and federal financial aid—which is often necessary for African-American students, who are more likely than other students to be low-income and to have fewer family-financed contributions toward their education.

“Despite having incomes that would qualify them for greater financial aid, we conclude that African

American students are likely receiving less financial aid because they are enrolled less-than-fulltime—a probable consequence of the delicate balance of college, work and family with which these students contend,” the report concluded.

Those conditions also adversely impact retention and graduation rates.

Among several solutions, the report recommended that the Pell Grant program be ramped up to fill the gap between rising tuition costs and decreasing state investment.

“While the federal investment in the Pell Grant has grown, it has not kept up with tuition costs,” the report concluded. “So while the Pell Grant once financed nearly 75 percent of the cost of a public four-year college education it now covers just 31 percent of a student’s cost of attendance.”

But financial aid is not enough. Institutions also need to create personalized wraparound services for students to boost achievement, as modelled by historically Black colleges and universities, the Urban League recommended.

“Institutions that create a culture of completion for all students and couple this culture with a suite of personalized services that address barriers such students face, realize dramatic increases in the retention and graduation rates of their African American students,” the NUL report stated. “We believe this personalized approach to the college learning experience will help support the access, retention and completion of all students.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO