The other day I reported on the completely incorrect meme that Black women are the “most educated group” in the U.S. That was a simple misreading of a percentage term on an old table of degree attainment, which was picked up by dozens of news-repeater websites. Too many writers/copiers and editors/selectors don’t know how to read or interpret social statistics, so this kind of thing happens when the story is just too good to pass up.
I ignored another part of those stories, which was the claim that Black women have the highest college enrollment rates, too. This is more complicated, and the repeated misrepresentation is more understandable.
Asha Parker in Salon wrote:
By both race and gender there is a higher percentage of black women (9.7 percent) enrolled in college than any other group including Asian women (8.7 percent), white women (7.1 percent) and white men (6.1 percent), according to the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau.
You know the rewrite journalists are playing telephone when they all cite the same out-of-date statistics. (That Census report comes out every year — here’s the 2014 version; pro-tip: with government reports, try changing the year in the URL as a shortcut to the latest version.)
But is that true? Sort of. Here I have to blame the Census Bureau a little, because on that table they do show those numbers, but what they don’t say is that 9.7% (in the case of Black women) is the percentage of all Black “women” age 3 or older who are attending college. On that same table you can see that about 2% of Black “women” are attending nursery school or kindergarten; more relevant, probably, is the attendance rate for those ages 3-4, which is 59%.
So it’s sort of true. Particularly odd on that table is the low overall college attendance rate of Asian women, who are far and away the most likely to go to college at the “traditional” college ages of 18-24. That’s because they are disproportionately over age 25 (partly because many have immigrated as adults). But, if you just limit the population to those ages 18-54, Black women still have the highest enrollment rates: 15.5%, compared with 14.6% for Asians, 12.6% for Hispanics, and 12.4% for Whites. Asians are just the most likely to be over 25 and not attending college, most of them having graduated college already.
This does not diminish the importance of high enrollment rates for Black women, which are real — after age 25; the pattern is interesting and important. Here it is:
Under age 25, Black women are the least likely to be in college, over 25 they’re the most likely. This really may say something about Black women’s resilience and determination, but it is not a feel-good story of barriers overcome and opportunity achieved. And, despite her presence in the videos and stories illustrating this meme, it is not the story of Michelle Obama, who had a law degree from Harvard at age 24.
This is part of a pattern in which family events are arrayed differently across the life course for different race/ethnic groups, and the White standard is often mistaken as universal. I have noted this before with regard to marriage (with more Black women marrying at later ages) and infant mortality (which Black women facing the lowest risk of infant death when they have children young). It’s worth looking at more systematically.
ADDENDUM 6/29/2016: Cumulative projected years of higher education
If you take the proportion of women enrolled in each age group, multiply it by the years if the age group (so, for example, 18-19 is two years), and sum up those products, you can get a projected total years in college (including graduate school) for each group of women. It looks like this:
Note this makes the unreasonable assumption that everyone who says they are enrolled in college in an October survey attends college for a full year. So, for example, Asian women are projected to spend 6.2 years in college on average between ages 18 and 54. What’s interesting here is that Black women are projected to spend more years in higher education than White women (5.5 versus 4.9). But we know they are much less likely than White women to end up with a bachelor’s degree (currently 23% versus 33%). This has to be some combination of Black women not spending full years in college, not going to school full time, or not completing bachelor’s degrees after however many years in school. Attendance may be an indicator of resilience or determination, but it’s not as good an indicator of success.