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Charles Hamilton Houston quote

  News & Views

More Than 4.5 Million African Americans Now Hold a Four-Year College Degree

Today nearly 4.6 million African Americans hold a four-year college degree. Yet the racial gap in degree attainments remains large and it does not appear to be shrinking.

Another serious blemish on this encouraging news is the fact that a large and fast-growing majority of these degrees earned by African Americans have been earned by black women.

At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, about 10,000 American blacks — one in 1,000 — were college educated. The editor of this journal, who was born in 1924, points out that a black child born that same year had about as much chance of completing four years of college as he had of playing shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. Today the world is different. There are more than 4.5 million African Americans alive today who hold a four-year college degree.

The breakdown is as follows: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 3,215,000 blacks in this country who have a bachelor’s degree. And there are an additional 1,078,000 African Americans who have both a four-year college degree and a master’s degree. An additional 150,000 blacks hold a professional degree in fields such as law, business, and medicine. Another 136,000 Afri-can Americans have ob-tained a doctorate. Over-all, 4,579,000 African Americans possess a four-year college de-gree or higher.
This is breathtaking progress.

In 2008, 19.6 percent of all African Amer-icans over the age of 25 held a college degree. This figure has in-creased significantly from 13.8 percent in 1996 and 11.3 percent in 1990.

Despite the good news, the data still shows that blacks must continue to travel a huge distance before they reach parity with white Americans in higher education.
Overall, 32.6 percent of the non-Hispanic white population over the age of 25 holds a college degree compared to 19.6 percent of adult blacks. This percentage gap has remained steady in recent years.


The Large Gender Gap in African-American Degree Attainments

There is important and indeed some very bad news: Black women have built a huge lead over black men in college degree attainments. Today there are 2,670,000 black women with a four-year degree or better. This compares to only 1,909,000 black men. Therefore, it turns out that black women account for almost 58 percent of all the African Americans who have completed four years of college or more in our country.

For those African Americans who have only a bachelor’s degree but no higher degree, black women have an even larger lead. There are 1,874,000 black women with a bachelor’s degree compared to 1,341,000 black men. 

Some 669,000 black women hold a master’s degree compared to 409,000 black men. Thus, black women hold 62 percent of all African-American master’s degrees, an even larger share of their total in bachelor’s degree attainments.

Black men continue to have a lead over black women in their numbers of professional degrees. Approximately 88,000 black men have a professional degree in the United States today compared to 62,000 black women. But black women are closing the gap. As we show on page 64 of this issue of JBHE, black women now earn nearly two thirds of all new professional degrees earned by African Americans. Therefore, it will only be a few years before black women overtake black men in the total number of professional degrees held by living African Americans.

Black men continue to hold the lead in doctorates but here too the gap is closing rapidly. Today black women hold 65,000 of the 136,000 doctorates held by living African Americans. But black women now earn 65 percent of all new doctorates awarded to African Americans. Therefore, the overall gender gap in favor of black men is likely to evaporate in the near future.


The Outlook for the Future:  Black Women’s Lead Is Likely to Widen

Today black women hold a large lead over black men in enrollments in almost all undergraduate and graduate programs. And this gender gap has grown over the past 30 years. Most important, black women have a college graduation rate that is significantly higher than the rate for black men. This current and growing enrollment gender gap among African Americans, coupled with a far higher college graduation rate for black women compared to black men, means that in future years, the gender gap in African-American degree attainments is certain to grow even wider. The most serious news is that if present trends continue, a generation from now black women with a four-year college degree will outnumber black men with a bachelor’s degree by a ratio of 2 to 1.