Are College Graduation Gaps in Massachusetts Improving or Getting Worse?

College Affordability and Completion

June 5, 2018

By: Konrad Mugglestone

Recently, Michael Dannenberg and I released a report entitled No Commencement for the Commonwealth. In it, we highlighted startling discrepancies in the way that Massachusetts’ public higher education system serves their Black and Latino students – resulting in a White-Black bachelor’s degree completion gap that ranks as the 3rdsmallest out of the 50-states, but a White-Latino completion gap that ranks 37thin the nation.

But is this an improvement? Or is this problem only getting worse?

To dig deeper, I examined the data in order to determine whether this is a long-term trend. Unfortunately, publicly available completion data disaggregated by race and ethnicity is limited. However, even from a small snapshot, it is clear that Massachusetts’ Latino population is getting left further and further behind by its higher education system.

In just these past five years, White students and Black students at Massachusetts’ public 4-year institutions have made steady and meaningful gains in their completion rates. White students have seen a 6 percentage point uptick in their completion rates from 57 percent in 2011 to 63 percent completion in 2016. Black students saw an even more impressive 11 percentage point rise from 42 percent to 53 percent in the same time frame. However, the results for Massachusetts’ Latino population represent a mixed bag. While the Latino graduation rate has risen only 4 percentage points from 44 percent to 48 percent over the past five years, graduation rates have been slightly declining for the past two years.



Looking at this another way, while Black Bachelor’s degree seeking students are actually catching up to White students in Massachusetts (the gap between them has shrunk by 33 percent over the past six years), Latino students are only falling further behind their White counterparts. Indeed, despite a modest uptick in 2012, the graduation gap has increased by approximately 20 percent over the past six years.

So, at its four-year institutions, Massachusetts’ already large White-Latino completion gap is getting worse. But what about at two-year institutions? After all, Massachusetts’ Latinos are disproportionately more likely to attend community colleges than even their national Latino peers.

First, it is worth noting that the completion rates at Massachusetts’ public community colleges are abysmally low for students of all backgrounds. However, they are especially bad for Black and Latino students. In 2016, only 1 in 4 White students, 1 in 8 Latino students, and only 1 in 10 Black students finished their program within 3 years. Worse, these rates are all an improvement from five years ago.



Indeed, the data again suggest the greatest growth in completion rates is among White students, while students of color get left behind. In this case, Latino and Black students see similar amounts of improvement (around 2 percentage points), but the gaps between these students and their White peers grew by 38 percent and 30 percent respectively over the past five years.

In No Commencement in the Commonwealth, we provide a number of explanations for these completion gaps, including major gaps in college preparation, significantly lower median incomes (especially for Latinos), and a failure of governments and accrediting agencies to hold institutions of higher education accountable for results.

It’s time to reverse these trends and adopt a comprehensive college promise plan. To do that, we suggest that Massachusetts should:

  1. Create a new, student responsibility-linked, statewide ‘free college’ promise that covers the total cost of attendance to any two or four-year public college for talented, hard-working students (i.e. who have completed a MassCore track or equivalent, among other requirements) if they are from households making less than $75,000 a year.
  2. Make MassCore available at all schools and the default academic track for all students.
  3. Provide competitive aid to school districts and non-profit organizations for high school student academic support services.
  4. Provide competitive aid to non-profit organizations and school districts to fund counseling on college selection, application and financing.
  5. Provide targeted direct aid to colleges and universities for institution-based efforts to boost completion.

For more information on the gaps in Massachusetts’ college preparation, access , and completion, as well as rationales and cost estimates for these policy recommendations, see our recently released report: No Commencement in the Commonwealth: How Massachusetts’ Higher Education System Undermines Economic Mobility for Latinos and Others – And What We Can Do About It.