© 2024
NPR News, Colorado Voices
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Colorado Finds New Solutions To Help Narrow Large Racial Gap In College Degrees

Brandon Navejas worked with the Denver Scholarship Foundation to secure a scholarship to the University of Colorado Boulder. He plans to start this fall and major in aerospace engineering.
Stephanie Daniel
Brandon Navejas worked with the Denver Scholarship Foundation to secure a scholarship to the University of Colorado Boulder. He plans to start this fall and major in aerospace engineering.

At a small taqueria in north Denver, the dinner rush is just starting. Server Brandon Navejas is confirming a to-go order at the family business his grandfather started over 30 years ago.

“Picking up the tacos?” he asks. “Steak tacos?”

He does a little bit of everything during his 40-hour work week, from bussing tables to marketing and social media. When his father died last year, he stepped up to support himself and his mother.

“We had to pay for our rent and pay for our bills,” Navejas said. “And I understood my mom wasn’t there yet, but I was strong enough, and I just had to do that for us.”

The 18-year-old recently graduated from nearby North High School with a nearly perfect grade point average. And he racked up a year’s worth of community college credits during his senior year.

A wrestler, he qualified for the state tournament, training in a gym where he and his teammates occasionally fell against the screws that stuck out from the walls; he couldn’t help comparing it with the top-rate facilities and equipment in the better-funded suburban schools where they competed.

Despite his record of academic, athletic and personal accomplishments, however, when it was time to get a college degree, the odds were against him.

While the overall proportion of Americans with higher education is slowly increasing, the proportions who are Black, Native American, or Hispanic and Latino — like Navejas — are falling further behind or staying no better than level.

“Cost and financial is absolutely an important barrier,” said Nathan Cadena, chief operating officer at the Denver Scholarship Foundation. “Additionally, academics tend to be a barrier based on the school history of a particular student.”

He works with teens attending Denver Public Schools, which enrolls mostly kids of color. The foundation provides services for first-generation and low-income students to help them figure out their life after high school. This includes partnering with in-state colleges and universities on scholarships and other assistance.

“(They) provide the wraparound supports for them to complete whatever credential or pathway that they're pursuing,” said Cadena.

The degree gap

The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary credentials nationwide has been rising, up from 38% to 45% since 2008, according to the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which co-produced this story.) The figure is through 2018, the most recent year for which data is available.

But the gap between the proportion of white Americans with degrees and Black Americans with degrees hasn’t narrowed during this period; it’s gotten wider, increasing from 18 percentage points to 20 percentage points.

The racial degree gulf in Colorado is among the nation’s largest, Lumina figures show. Black, Native American, Hispanic and Latino and low-income Colorado high school graduates have been going on to college at lower rates than white and Asian ones, the state’s Department of Higher Education conceded in the spring. Hispanics are 41 percentage points less likely than whites to have a credential beyond high school, Blacks 28 percentage points less likely and Native Americans 35 percentage points less likely.

“That’s just not right,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “I don’t know how we’ve gotten away with doing that for all of these years.”

In June, the state empowered four-year public universities to award associate degrees to students who earned at least 70 credits on their way to bachelor’s degrees before dropping out, meaning they’ll at least have some kind of a credential. Nearly 680,000 Coloradans, and 36 million Americans, have spent some time in college but have no degree, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports; low-income, first generation students are four times more likely to drop out of college after their first year than their wealthier classmates whose parents completed higher educations, according to the First Generation Foundation.

There are also efforts to help people from underrepresented groups who do end up at college stay there. At Metropolitan State University of Denver, or MSU, for example, low-income and racial and ethnic minority students this summer are taking an online “success seminar” to teach them time management and study skills as part of a new program called Pathways to Possible.

Unlike their higher-income classmates, some of those low-income students are dealing with unseen problems such as not having enough food to eat or a regular place to live, said Ryan Ross, associate vice chancellor for student affairs, equity and inclusion for the Colorado Community College System.

“And when they get into a classroom and they’re tired or sleepy, they’re hungry — they’re not focused. Sometimes the assumption is, ‘You’re not a great student.’ Actually, they’re a great student, but they’re living a horrible life,” Ross said.

An economic imperative

The racial degree gap problem highlights issues beyond equity and fairness. Several states are recognizing that, unless they can propel more people through college who have been less likely to go and to finish, they can’t meet their goals for increasing the proportion of their populations with degrees — or be able to fill jobs requiring a college education.

“It is incredibly important to be narrowing rather than expanding those attainment gaps,” said Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, who called the disparities “startlingly large.”

“There’s a moral imperative, but also an economic imperative here — real dollars-and-cents reasons for society to close those gaps.”

Comparatively low levels of college education among racial and ethnic minority and low-income Americans cost the U.S. economy nearly $1 trillion a year in forgone earnings, consumer spending and tax revenue combined with potential savings on social services, according to an analysis released in May by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

There’s fear that these existing educational disparities will be made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, the aftereffects of which are likely to last for years.

“The segment of the population that cannot support themselves at levels that we think of as tolerable, if that segment grows, that's going to become a larger burden on the rest of us,” said Jeffrey Zax, an economics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The workforce in Colorado and around the country is changing as jobs increasingly require more than a high school diploma.

To meet the demand for workers with postsecondary degrees, the state has been importing highly educated talent to fill jobs. The downside is homegrown talent is falling behind not just academically, but economically as well.

Importing educated workers is a “very sloppy” way to prepare for future workforce needs, Zax said.

“The politicians have looked at the state and said we have a very highly educated workforce; we can sort of ignore the fact that we poached that education from elsewhere, and we’re not actually serving our own children very well,” Zax said.

The racial divide between who gets a college education and who doesn’t has remained stubbornly large, said Paccione, a former teacher and onetime state representative. “This is not new,” she said.

And the need to close it is intensifying.

“We need more software engineers. We need more health care workers. We need more cybersecurity folks. We have one of the biggest space industries,” she said. “So let’s grow our own.”

Brandon Navejas with Zulema Sierra at the Denver Scholarship Foundation, an independent nonprofit that helped him find the money he needed to go to college.
Sara Hertwig
The Hechinger Report
Brandon Navejas with advisor Zulema Sierra at the Denver Scholarship Foundation, an independent nonprofit that helped him find the money he needed to go to college.

Grow our own

Navejas worked with an advisor from the Denver Scholarship Foundation throughout high school. The cost of college was the biggest concern, he said, but the nonprofit helped him figure it out.

“This year it was actually a little more virtual being online learning,” he said. “But they had it posted on their dashboard scholarships, and I jumped at every opportunity I could.”

His tenacity paid off. Navejas got a scholarship from CU Boulder and starts this fall. He plans to major in aerospace engineering, get his master’s degree and become an astronaut.

Colorado has the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy. And according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, engineering jobs are growing faster than the national average. The median pay is nearly $70,000 a year.

“I'm excited just to meet new people, broaden my networking,” he said. “The professors over there especially, I know I'll be really learning like exactly what I need to learn.”

His family is excited too. Navejas says he is also nervous about being away from home, but plans to come back to north Denver often.

“It's not too far,” he said. “My grandpa is always going to have a spot for me to work whenever I need some extra cash, come on the weekends.”

Before he goes off to achieve his dream of going to space, his focus his much more grounded. He wants to provide great service to his customers and finish the dinner rush.

This story about racial gaps in college degrees was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

The “American Dream” was coined in 1931 and since then the phrase has inspired people to work hard and dream big. But is it achievable today? Graduating from college is challenging, jobs are changing, and health care and basic rights can be a luxury. I report on the barriers people face and overcome to succeed and create a better life for themselves and their families.
Jon Marcus
Related Content