Report exposes persistent income, race gaps in college graduation, even with strong K-12 education

Researchers at Brown and Harvard found that Massachusetts children of all racial and economic backgrounds are more likely than ever before to enroll in college — but wealthy, white students are still far more likely to receive a college degree.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Children of all economic and racial backgrounds who attend Massachusetts public schools are now more likely than ever to graduate from high school and attend college. But earning a college degree remains an elusive prospect for many low-income students and students of color in the state.

That’s according to a new report released on Thursday, June 18, by scholars at Brown and Harvard universities. The study — “Lifting All Boats? Accomplishments and Challenges from 20 Years of Education Reform in Massachusetts” — was led by John Papay, an associate professor of education at Brown, as part of a research-practice partnership between Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform and the Massachusetts Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education.

To examine how the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act has affected outcomes for children in the state, Papay and his colleagues analyzed two decades of state testing data, college admission and graduation records, and labor market earnings. They found that the last two decades have seen college enrollment rates climb across all demographics, including for children of color and children who come from low-income households.

That’s the good news, Papay said. The bad news is that gaps by income, race and ethnicity in the four-year college graduation rate have widened over that span, reflecting a nationwide trend. While Massachusetts high school graduates who enter college are now more economically and racially diverse than ever, Papay explained, white and wealthy students are still far more likely to graduate and earn a bachelor’s degree than their non-white, low-income peers — setting them up for better career prospects and higher incomes down the line.

“Our findings suggest that public education in Massachusetts has made substantial progress since the Education Reform Act was passed,” Papay said. “Massachusetts is widely recognized as a national leader in education reform and a state that others try to emulate. But even Massachusetts has a long way to go in equalizing opportunities for all students. Closing gaps in post-secondary educational attainments will be key to reducing current levels of income inequality.”

The report comes at a time of intense reckoning with systemic racism and racial inequality in the United States. Following the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, millions have taken to the streets to protest anti-black violence and police brutality, and national conversations have drawn attention to racial inequality in everything from the workplace to the public square to the classroom.

Papay said the report sheds light on persistent racial and economic divides in Massachusetts. The results show that even among students who score similarly on their Grade 10 Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, outcomes are different depending on their races and income levels — a demonstration that even high-achieving students face inherent disadvantages if they come from historically marginalized groups.

“Given the large and growing earnings premium associated with a bachelor’s degree, the widening gaps in college completion warrant serious concern,” Papay said. “The state’s higher education systems need to work with K-12 schools to ensure that all students who want to pursue more education have access to college, enter ready to succeed and receive enough support to leave with a degree. That is not only true for Massachusetts but also for the country as a whole.”

Among the other researchers involved were Ann Mantil, a postdoctoral research associate in education at Brown; Lily An, Kate Donohue and Aubrey McDonough, research program associates in education at Brown; and Richard J. Murnane, an economist and professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. The research was supported by the Spencer Foundation, the Institute of Education Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education (Grant R305H190035).

The full report is available at www.LiftingAllBoatsMA.org.