Barriers faced by black female college students

Black women have made history.

We have emerged with the highest percentage of college enrollment — at the undergraduate or graduate level — for the first time in the history of data collection at the U.S. National Center of Education Statistics.

9.7% of college students look like me for the first time in American history, and I could not be more proud of my sistas. However, my concern is not enrollment numbers because we’ve got that on lock. I want to talk to you all about the retention and graduation rates of Black women.

The feat of enrollment has been headlined as Black women being “the most educated group in the United States.” Sadly, that’s misleading. The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the barriers that I and my sistas face. This country must not use that misleading headline to sweep our plights under the rug. Just because we enroll more than any other group does not mean that we do not face barriers and it does not mean our society is post-racial (as some would comment).

Out of 981,780 bachelor’s degrees handed out to female U.S. citizens and nonresident aliens, only 113,898 — about 11.6% — were received by black women, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Around 67.5% were granted to white women.

The numbers get even bleaker as you climb into the graduate levels.

Degree type

Total conferred to females

White women

Black women

Bachelor’s 981,780 662,522 113,898
Master’s 439,084 285,123 56,965
Doctorate1 84,111 54,266 7,089
Numbers are based on the most recent data provided by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics for degrees granted to U.S. citizens and nonresident aliens. 1Includes Ph.D., E.D., and comparable degrees at the doctoral level, as well as such degrees as M.D., D.D.S., and law degrees that were formerly classified as first-professional degrees.

It’s clear that we, Black women, are missing from the upper levels of education. We enroll more than any other group, yet we do not stay nor do we move up in the ranks of higher education as frequently. Why is that?

Well, one reason is cost. Household wealth is vital when it comes to paying for college. Families tend to draw upon their wealth — taking out mortgages, cashing in stocks — in order to finance the cost of an education. And wealth is not a commonality in the black community due to 400 plus years of economic marginalization.

The median household wealth for black families is $4,890 compared to $97,000 for white families, according to the 2010 Economic Policy Institute data. That is one hell of a wealth gap.

Granted, there are scholarships and other forms of financial aid out there. But some women may wonder why they should even go into all that debt and then venture out into an unstable job market.

10.4% of Black women over the age of 20 are unemployed as of January of this year. Though I could not find any data pertaining to the unemployment rates of Black female college graduates, the unemployment rate for all Black college grads is 5.7% compared to 3.5% for whites. Black college graduates also maintain the highest unemployment rate of all other racial groups.

Another barrier is student loan debt which is nearing the trillion dollar mark (it was $986 billion as of March 2013)—and, of course, more Blacks take out student loans than any other group.

34% of Black students—the highest of any other group—take out loans compared to 16% of whites, based on June 2013 data from the Urban Institute. And, since more Black women enroll in and graduate from college than Black men, it can be assumed that the majority of that 34% is female.

The statistics are against me and my fellow Black women. I know that I will graduate from UNC Chapel Hill this May with around $28,000 in student loan debt. And considering how bleak the job market is, I often wonder if it was worth it.

Then I quickly remind myself of all of the beautiful and strong Black men and women who fought so that I can be where I am today. I think of my great-grandmother who drilled the importance of an education into the side of my skull. I think of all the doors that are now open for me because I have a degree.

I hope that my sistas will push forward. Transcend these statistics. Go forth and be great. Uplift our black brethren because their educational stats are far worse than ours. Do not let this country and these numbers make you feel as though your education is pointless. Trust me—it isn’t.

One thought on “Barriers faced by black female college students

  1. Thank you for shedding some light on the reality of black women and education. Everybody is going crazy about how we’re enrolling in college at a higher rate than everyone else, however, that does not mean we still don’t have obstacles to overcome. I wish the experiences of black people, but especially black women would stop being headlined and sensationalized for the sake of proving our society is post-racial and/or situations are better for the black community.


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