The share of Oklahomans with a college education has lagged behind the national average for decades and in the last twenty years we’ve fallen even further behind. Partly to blame is our lackluster college completion record. Oklahoma has one of the lowest college graduation rates in the nation, with less than half (44.1 percent) of our enrolled students completing a degree within six years. College completion rates for students of color in the state are particularly low, despite the fact that in recent years enrollment in higher education across race/ethnicity has seen dramatic improvement. With the exception of Hispanic students, enrollment in public and private colleges and universities across the state is reflective of Oklahoma’s demographics:
White students comprised 68.4 percent of the Freshmen class in 2009, followed by Native American students (10.3 percent), African American students (10.0 percent), and Hispanic students (4.6 percent). Only Hispanic students enrolled in college at lower rates than one would expect given their current population of residents 18-24 years of age. However, despite this rough initial parity in enrollment, between the first year of school and graduation day four or five years later we see a steep drop-off in the completion rates for students of color relative to white students. The chart below shows the 5-year graduation rates for full-time equivalent students at higher education institutions in Oklahoma by race/ethnicity in 2009:
Higher education institutions in Oklahoma are graduating African American (27.1 percent), Hispanic (29.6 percent), and Native American students (33.2 percent) at markedly lower rates than their white cohorts (40.1 percent). Graduation rates presented in the chart above represent averages across all institutions in the state, but minority graduation rates vary widely from school to school. Click here to see a list of Oklahoma institutions by 5-year graduation rate by race in 2009.
This gap in graduation rates erects a substantial barrier to economic opportunity for minority Oklahomans. Education is fundamental to an individual’s capacity to secure employment, bring in sufficient earnings, and achieve financial security over their lifetime. There is a strong correlation between educational attainment and income. Countless studies also correlate educational achievement with a host of social goods, including political and civic engagement and lower crime and incarceration rates.
This past fall Governor Fallin and higher education officials announced a plan to increase the number of degrees awarded in the state by 67 percent, so that by 2023 Oklahoma colleges and universities will annually award 50,900 college degrees. Few details of how exactly the state will boost degree completion were released, but we know that not all college completion efforts are created equal. New data evaluating popular initiatives like Oklahoma’s Promise program reveal that they’re primarily benefiting white students and students with middle and upper incomes.
Producing more college graduates overall is a laudable goal, but without a targeted effort to improve graduation rates for students of color, an underlying education deficit with accompanying racial/ethnic inequalities will persist. Oklahoma needs to put more emphasis on programs that provide support to our most vulnerable, low income and minority students, and insist that our higher education institutions be held accountable for wide disparities in educational attainment. Closing the gap in educational attainment between white students and students of color is critical to reducing economic inequalities that hamper economic growth and narrow opportunities for prosperity.