Skip to Content

Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education

 

President Denise M. Trauth
Texas State University-San Marcos
November 2, 2006

 

Panel discussion
Race, Ethnicity and Place Conference
Presented with
President Lois DeFleur, Binghamton University
President George Wright, Prairie View A&M University


I was asked to talk today about the Closing the Gaps initiative and its impact on the state of Texas, and I’m happy to do that because its goals are absolutely critical to the future of Texas and have implications for the nation, as well.
Demographics are behind this initiative, and demographics have everything to do with our theme today. I have been fascinated over the last couple of weeks by the flurry of features and news stories surrounding the fact that the United States population hit 300 million. Maybe the milestone got such widespread press because most of us are looking for a respite from war and election news, but it has been interesting to sit back and look at who we are as a nation. Newspapers, talk shows and news magazines are full of graphs and stories about what the country looks like now and what we will look like in 20, 30 or 40 years.

One story forecast what the nation will look like when the population hits 400 million, expected about the year 2043. By then, it says, the U.S. will be 22 percent Hispanic, up from less than 13 percent today, and Anglos‘ share of the population will have fallen from 70 to 55 percent while African-American numbers will grow slightly to a little more than 13 percent. But by 2043, 20 to 30 percent of the population will be multi-racial, blurring the lines among races altogether.

The face of Texas has already shifted to the point that today less than half the population is Anglo. We are a minority majority state. By the year 2020, Anglos and Hispanics will be about the same percentage of the population, and by 2040 more than half of all Texans will be Hispanic.

Shifting demographics mean that the face of higher education must also change. Currently, by age 25-29, about a third of whites in the United States have obtained bachelor’s degrees, while just 18 percent of African-Americans and 10 percent of Hispanics have a degree. In Texas almost one quarter [22 percent] of the population has less than a high school education - the highest percentage in the country. Thirteen percent of Hispanics have an associate’s degree or higher in Texas, compared to 40 percent of whites. In our state, the education gap between whites and minorities is widening, not closing. Despite increases in educational attainment for the Texas population as a whole, educational attainment for Hispanic males has actually declined over the last 20 years.

In the year 2000 the state of Texas took a long, hard look at its economic future, and alarms went off. Texas was faced with a “growing unskilled, under-educated population that cannot meet the demands of a technology-based workplace.” The average household income in Texas was expected to decline by $4,000 in constant dollars by the year 2030. Texas was faced with increased public spending on prisons, welfare and Medicaid as a result. Enrollment in higher education was increasing, but the participation rate was declining. The participation rate had been 5.3 percent in 1990, was 4.9 percent in 2000 and was predicted to fall to 4.6 percent by 2015. In contrast to Texas’ 4.9 participation rate, other large states were doing better: California’s was 6.1, Illinois’ was 6.0, New York’s 5.6. Additionally, the percentage of ninth graders who complete high school and enter college was dismal in Texas: 32 percent of Texas ninth graders completed high school and entered college, as compared to 54 percent in New Jersey, 49 percent in Illinois, 43 and 44 percent in California and New York.

That’s a lot of numbers, I realize. Sum it up by saying that Texas was behind the educational rates of other populous states and was falling farther behind. That forecast was not a pretty picture for the future economy of the state or for the quality of lives of future Texans.

The question was what to do about it. The legislature adopted an ambitious initiative called Closing the Gaps that proposed goals in participation numbers, graduation numbers, research funding and numbers of nationally recognized programs.

The first goal was the real news-maker, however. It called for Texas to put 500,000 more students into college by the year 2015 – half again as many as were enrolled in 2000. And that figure was later revised upward to more than 600,000.

To reach or even get close to this goal of Closing the Gaps, we are going to have to assure that a college education is a possibility for all our citizens. This means that it must be affordable to everyone. And right now we are going in the opposite direction. We are putting a college education farther and farther out of the reach of many of our people.

College tuitions are rising, and more and more students are being left behind because of costs. Most of those left-behind students are ethnic minorities. Low-income students, regardless of race, who score in the top quarter of standardized college admission tests attend college at the same rate as high-income students in the lowest quarter. Texas’ median family income remains well below the U.S. average. In fact Texas ranks 37th in the country. And our lower-income student population is the fastest growing segment of our public schools. Texas is No. 6 in the nation in K-12 growth, increasing by 11 percent between 1999 and 2005 with the largest percentage of growth among lower-income and minority students.

Between 1995 and 2005, average tuition and fees across the nation rose 36 percent at private four-year colleges and 51 percent at public four-year colleges. In Texas between 2002 and 2006, average tuition and fees at public universities increased 61 percent and at community colleges 51 percent.
Costs have risen in large part because state funding nationwide has fallen to its lowest level in more than 20 years. In 1980 almost 10 percent of states’ budgets nationwide was spent on higher education. Today it’s 7 percent.

Nationwide, the state share of per capita personal income going to higher education has dropped almost 20 percent since 1977. Educational appropriations per FTE in public higher education institutions decreased 12 percent between 1991 and 2004. It is common place on state university campuses for financial officers to say that we used to call ourselves “state supported.” Then we changed it to “state assisted,” and now we should change it to “state located.”

If we continue on this trajectory, we poison our future economy in obvious and not so obvious ways. The most obvious way is lost tax revenue. Under-educated citizens earn less money, therefore pay less tax. A Census Bureau study out last week says that a college education is worth $23,000 a year. It reported that figure to be the gap between adults with a bachelor’s degree, who average $52,000 a year, and adults with a high school diploma, who average $29,000 a year. It also reported average annual earnings of $19,000 for high school dropouts and $78,000 for those with advanced degrees.

This educational advantage has been clear for a long time -- more education, more money, although when I was an assistant professor, I probably would have argued with that! But there are not-so-obvious costs -- quality-of-life costs -- as well. An under-educated citizenry costs the state and nation in terms of health care, job training, welfare, and criminal justice spending.

Health care costs rise when citizens are uninsured, and percentages of those insured increase with educational attainment. Nationwide 8 percent of people with a bachelor’s degree are uninsured, compared to 25 percent of those with no high school diploma. In Texas costs are even higher: Texas has the highest non-insured percentage in the country -- a 24 percent average but 39 percent for those with no high school diploma. College educated people by and large don’t go to jail; they live longer, smoke less and vote more.

So higher education is important not only to our individual good, but to our collective good as well. We have lost sight of this fact in recent years. The thinking has become, “If you get a degree, you’ll be better off; therefore, you should pay for it.” We have retreated from the notion of higher education as a public good.

We unveiled a statue of Lyndon Johnson on our campus this fall. It’s a wonderful likeness of Johnson as a young man, walking down the Quad with his books. The statue was a gift from our students, who believed -- rightly so -- that because we are the only Texas institution to have graduated a U.S. president, we should have a statue of that president. With the statue is a quote: “This nation cannot rest while the door to knowledge remains closed to any American.” Johnson said that and passionately believed it.

Almost exactly a year ago, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Higher Education Act by President Johnson on our campus in 1965. Education was close to Johnson’s heart. He believed education to be the solution to all the problems in the world. But while that notion came from his heart, it also came from his head. He knew that education was, and is, a wise and profitable investment for any country.

And he was hardly alone in his thinking. The Higher Education Act sailed through Congress – perhaps owing partially to the fact that LBJ was a master politician but probably more to the fact that Congress and the country saw higher education as a public good. Passing it was -- in current language -- a “no-brainer.”

While Closing the Gaps does not state the fact as such, its clear message is that higher education is a public good. Meeting the goals of Closing the Gaps will benefit not only those who will be brought into college but all of us. Perhaps it will help us get back on the track of viewing higher education with a higher purpose.

The Texas plan is incredibly ambitious. It’s as brassy as Ann Richards and as in-your-face as Lyndon Johnson. Of course, Texas is not alone in the goals it needs to meet for the future good of the state. But Texas is approaching it in a very Texas sort of way.

That wonderful Lone Star philosopher Jerry Jeff Walker may express this mind-set best in his recording of London Homesick Blues. He croons, “When a Texan fancies, he’ll take his chances; and chances will be taken, that’s for sure.” That’s what Texas is doing: taking a chance. It’s the biggest, boldest chance that Texas has taken in a long time, and it’s the right chance to take. Other states would do well to follow suit.

Thank you for your kind attention.