Educational Attainment and Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Disparity
Research conducted by: United States Census Bureau
Case study prepared by: Robert F. Houser, Georgette Baghdady, and Jennifer E. Konick
The U.S. Census Bureau defines educational attainment as the highest level of education that a person has completed. Large disparities in educational attainment continue to exist among racial and ethnic groups. The gender gap in educational attainment, however, has been undergoing a dramatic social shift in recent decades. In Table 230 below, the U.S. Census Bureau tabulated these trends among Whites, Blacks, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics between 1970 and 2010. This case study focuses only on college graduates. The data for "College graduate or more" represent the percentage of adults aged 25 years and older that obtained a degree from regular four-year colleges and universities and graduate or professional schools in each racial and ethnic group.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the racial and ethnic categories in the following manner:
- “White” refers to persons having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.
- “Black” refers to persons having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.
- “Asian” refers to persons having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.
- “Pacific Islander” refers to persons having origins in any of the original peoples of the Pacific Islands, such as Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, and Tonga.
- “Hispanic” refers to an ethnic group comprised of persons of any race who are of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin.
Educational attainment is strongly associated with future employment, income, and health status.
Questions to Answer
How has the percentage of college graduates changed over time between 1970 and 2010 among the racial and ethnic groups and between the genders within each group? How might we illustrate these changes graphically?
Beginning with the 2000 U.S. Census, respondents were given the option of selecting more than one race category to indicate their racial identities. Therefore, data on race from 2000 and beyond are not directly comparable with earlier censuses. The data in Table 230 represent persons who selected only one race category and exclude persons who selected more than one race.
In the 2005 U.S. Census and beyond, the “Asian and Pacific Islander” category was split into two separate categories, “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.” There were several reasons for the split. The combined category was not a homogeneous group because it put together peoples with few social or cultural similarities and who are dissimilar on important demographic characteristics. For example, in 1990, about 11 percent of Pacific Islanders aged 25 years and older obtained a bachelor’s degree compared with about 40 percent of Asians. Since Pacific Islanders are numerically a smaller group than Asians (in 2010, there were about a half million Pacific Islanders versus about 14.6 million Asians), not including them in the data of Table 230 starting in 2005 biases the percentage of college graduates upwards somewhat, but not strongly.
Descriptions of Variables
|College graduate or more
||Obtained a degree from regular four-year colleges and universities and graduate or professional schools
||Decade years from 1970 to 2010
Percentage of college graduates in U.S. subpopulation of White males aged 25 years and over; likewise for White females
Percentage of college graduates in U.S. subpopulation of Black males aged 25 years and over; likewise for Black females
||Black or African American refers to persons having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa
Percentage of college graduates in U.S. subpopulation of Asian and Pacific Islander males aged 25 years and over; likewise for Asian and Pacific Islander females
Percentage of college graduates in U.S. subpopulation of Hispanic males aged 25 years and over; likewise for Hispanic females
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012, Section 4, Education, 143-192.
Telfair, J., Shelton, T. L. (2012). Educational attainment as a social determinant of health. North Carolina Medical Journal, 73(5), 358-365.
Table 230. Educational Attainment by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex: 1970 to 2010 (lower half of page)
How does the Census Bureau ask about educational attainment?
Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010
Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap
Why Do Women Outnumber Men in College?
Women in America
Educational Attainment as a Social Determinant of Health
Please use the Excel file of Table 230 provided at the end of the case study to perform the exercises. The data in Table 230 are percentages.
- Using Excel, create a line graph of the data in Table 230 showing the changes in the percentage of college graduates from 1970 to 2010. Use only decade years (1970, 1980, etc.). Plot all racial and ethnic groups with separate lines for males and females. Be sure to label the x-axis and y-axis.
- Why do you think we are using only decade years in the graph?
- Which race or ethnic group as a whole shows the greatest rate of increase in percent college graduates since 1970? How can you tell from the line graph?
- Which group as a whole has made the least progress in college-degree attainment since 1970? Which sex within this group advanced the least? Explain your answers.
- Compare the gender trends within each racial and ethnic group.
- Describe what has happened to the gender gap over time from 1970 to 2010 for each racial and ethnic group.
- Using Excel, create a horizontal bar chart comparing the percent increase in college graduates between the two time points 1970 and 2010 by sex for each of the race and ethnic groups.
- Why are we using only decade years in the graph?
- Which racial or ethnic group had the greatest rate of increase in percentage of college graduates between 1970 and 2010? How can you tell from the graph?
- Which racial or ethnic group made the least progress in educational attainment between 1970 and 2010? How can you tell from the graph?
- Compare the gender trends within each racial and ethnic group.
- Using Excel, create a bar chart comparing the gender gap (i.e., percent male college graduates minus percent female college graduates) for each race and ethnic group in 2010 versus the gender gap for each race and ethnic group in 1970.
- Which racial or ethnic group has maintained approximately the same gender gap in both years?
- Which group has had "the tables turned" between the sexes since 1970?
- For which group were female college graduates already exceeding male college graduates in 1970?
- In 1970, percent male college graduates exceeded percent female college graduates by approximately the same amount for Asians and Whites, but by 2010, the White gender gap had eroded considerably while the Asian gender gap remained the same. How might you explain this?
- What are some of the societal factors that are likely affecting the degree of progress in each racial and ethnic group as a whole? What are some of the societal factors spurring females to pursue higher educational attainment?
- How does one reconcile the figures shown in Table 230 with statistics shown in the graph below indicating that the percentage of young women graduating from college far exceeds the percentage of young men graduating from college in 2009?
Percent of U.S. Adults Ages 25-29 With a Bachelor's Degree or Higher, 1969-2009
Source: PRB analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau