It is often asserted that the gender gap in educational attainment is larger for blacks than whites, but historical trends comparing the black and white gender gap have received surprisingly little attention. Analysis of historical data from the U.S. census IPUMS samples shows that the gender gap in college completion has evolved differently for whites and blacks. Historically, the female advantage in educational attainment among blacks is linked to more favorable labor market opportunities and stronger incentives for employment for educated black women. Blacks, particularly black males, still lag far behind whites in their rates of college completion, but the striking educational gains of white women have caused the racial patterns of gender differences in college completion rates to grow more similar over time. While some have linked the disadvantaged position of black males to their high risk of incarceration, our estimates suggest that incarceration has a relatively small impact on the black gender gap and the racial gap in college completion rates for males in the United States.
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In 2005, 193,000 black males aged 18–24 (slightly more than 10% of the total population of this age group) were incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails (Harrison and Beck 2006). More than one-half million (530,000) 18- to 24-year-old black males (28% of the total population of black males of this age group) were enrolled in colleges and universities that same year.
Between 1940 and 2000, the proportion of white men without a BA who were working varied between .85 and .89, compared with .89 and .95 for those with a BA (results available from authors upon request). For black men without a BA, the proportion employed has steadily declined from 1940 to 2000, from .84 to .62, and has remained steady for those with a BA (between .86 and .93). Black and white women’s employment rates increased over time, but women with a BA were more likely to be employed at all time points. In 1940, the proportion of white and black women with a BA who were employed was .50 and .60, respectively, compared with .28 and .43 without a BA. By 2000, these proportions were, respectively, .83 and .84 with a BA compared with .68 and .64 without a BA.
The grouping “doctors, dentists, and lawyers” includes all types of doctors as well as veterinarians and judges. “Teachers” does not include college instructors or professors. “Nurses” includes professional and practical nurses.
Ideally, we would use longitudinal data to track successive cohorts across different ages, but such information is not available in IPUMS, which provides only a snapshot of educational attainment at the point when the census data are collected. In the 1980 census, for example, individuals who were age 22 were born in 1958, and individuals who were age 23 were born in 1959. If the rate of completing college rises across cohorts, then we would expect college completion rates for 23-year-olds in 1980 to be higher than for 22-year-olds by virtue of being older. At the same time, we would expect college completion rates of 23-year-olds in 1980 to be lower than those of the 22-year-olds after they age another year (e.g., 23-year-olds in 1981) by virtue of the fact that the 23-year-olds in 1980 are from an earlier cohort.
To avoid excess extrapolation, we simulate using the 1974 instead of the 1978 birth cohort.
Buchmann and DiPrete (2006) found that students who begin in community college are significantly less likely to earn a four-year degree than students who begin in a four-year college even though a considerable fraction of community college students do eventually transfer to four-year institutions.
Black males are more likely than black females to complete high school via a GED than via earning a diploma (Dynarski 2007), and this difference may be important in accounting for the gender gap in the transition to postsecondary education, especially if the gender gap in high school completion via the GED is itself a rising trend.
We do not show comparable graphs for whites only because the magnitude of the correction for the white population is small. Graphs for younger black males look generally similar to the graph for black males in the 26–28 age range.
As with any panel, there is some sample attrition in NELS88 between the first and fourth waves, and it is possible that lost cases are disproportionately males with prison records. Arguing against this is the fact that the attrition pattern by the eighth grade quartile is relatively flat for black males (11%, 9%, 10%, and 9%). At the same time, sample attrition is greater for black males than for black females, and some of this may be related to incarceration. To take into account the possibility that the panel weights are not fully correcting for attrition attributable to incarceration, we adjusted the reported proportion of males in each academic quartile by the difference in attrition rates for black males and black females and assumed that none of the added black males completed college. Adjusting the bottom quartile in this way increases the adjustment for incarceration from 0.9 percentage points to 1.1 percentage points. Adjusting both the first and the second quartiles in this way increases the adjustment for incarceration from 1.7 percentage points to 2.1 percentage points. These adjustments are not large enough to affect the rounded adjustment figures reported in the text, and they do not affect our substantive conclusion.
We extended our analysis to include individuals aged 29–31 to see whether men close some of the gender gap in college completion if given a few more years to complete their degree. Comparing 26- to 28-year-olds with 29- to 31-year-olds in 2005–2007, we find that the black gender gap does not close among older ages: the difference between men and women is 4 percentage points in the younger age group and 5 percentage points in the older age group. However, white men are able to close some of the gender gap: from 8 percentage points in the younger age group to 5 percentage points in the older age group. This is partially due to the age when the proportion of each group completing college peaks. For black and white women and black men, college completion peaks at age 30. For white men, completion peaks at age 31. Extending the analysis to older ages does not substantially change the overall trends in college completion (calculations available from the authors upon request).
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The authors thank Robert Hauser for valuable comments on this paper. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the annual meetings of the Population Association of American in Detroit, Michigan; at the Population Center of the University of Texas at Austin; at the Feminist Intervention colloquium series of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University; and at the Russell Sage Foundation.
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McDaniel, A., DiPrete, T.A., Buchmann, C. et al. The Black Gender Gap in Educational Attainment: Historical Trends and Racial Comparisons. Demography 48, 889–914 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-011-0037-0
- Educational attainment
- Black/African American