Oregon has made progress toward a state goal of 80% of young people earning a postsecondary degree, according to a new report from the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. But a pandemic setback in college enrollment and graduation rates could hamper that progress if sustained over the long term.
Despite the overall gains, detailed data through 2021 shows that progress has varied by race and ethnic group, and that some disparities have grown even larger over time. For example, post-college income disparities have widened among some demographic groups in recent years.
“This is an important finding,” Amy Cox, the commission’s research and data director, said at a commission meeting Thursday on the income data. “It says that the benefits of post-secondary education and training continue to not be shared equally or equitably across all groups.”
Cox’s report to the commission covered several measures the state agency is tracking in the K-12 and higher education sectors, including college going rate, post-secondary graduation rate, and post-college earnings. The measures are indicative of the state’s progress toward its so-called 40-40-20 goal, which requires 40% of students to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40% to earn a college certificate or associate degree, and 20% to earn at least one High-school diploma.
After several years of somewhat stagnant results, the 2021 data shows a slight improvement in bachelor’s degrees. About 38% of Oregon’s 25-34 year olds had earned a bachelor’s degree in 2021, Cox’s data showed, compared to 36% the year before.
“I think there’s good news here,” Cox said.
Drops for college
As The Oregonian/OregonLive previously reported, college going rates plummeted in the class of 2020, who graduated at the start of the pandemic and faced the prospect of starting college in a virtual environment.
Only 56% of the Class of 2020 enrolled in college within 16 months, versus 63% of the Class of 2019.
“The rate of decline is quite dramatic,” Cox told commissioners.
Almost all racial and ethnic groups experienced this sharp decline during the pandemic, the commission’s data shows, but long-term trends vary. The overall college attendance rate has fallen about 9 percentage points since 2011, Cox data shows. College attendance among Native American students has declined the most since 2011, down 17 percentage points. The college enrollment rate for Latino students had been slowly increasing since 2011, but the pandemic has wiped out that progress.
The decline in the percentage of high school seniors entering college could be a temporary outlier, and longer-term data will show if grads eventually enrolled in 2020 after taking time off from school.
This result will reflect Oregon’s progress towards 40-40-20 goals.
“If the recent decline in college enrollment is a pandemic anomaly, then continued slow growth or stable enrollment is likely,” Cox’s report said. “If the decline in college enrollment continues, the proportion of young adults with a post-secondary degree is likely to decrease in the years to come.”
Mixed college degree
Graduation and graduation rates from community colleges and universities have increased over time. However, recent data shows that the pandemic has affected them in slightly different ways.
Community college graduation and transfer rates fell slightly during the pandemic, the first drop in eight years, Cox said. However, graduate rates from the country’s public universities continued to rise.
Detailed racial and ethnic data paints a more complicated picture of whether colleges address differential outcomes between student groups.
At the community college level, the percentage of Black, Latino, and Native American students graduating from college has increased more over time than the percentage of White students graduating from college, contributing to the To narrow the equity gap towards white students who still graduate at a higher rate. To close these equity gaps, Cox said, the improvement of underserved student groups must rise faster.
At public universities, despite a general increase in graduation rates, some underserved students have continued to fall behind.
“Graduation rates continue to rise during the pandemic, but the equity gaps don’t seem to be closing, at least not for all groups,” Cox said.
The proportion of Black, Hawaii Native students and Native American students graduating within six years fell between the 2006 and 2015 entry classes, state data shows. Results for these student groups can vary widely from year to year due to small student numbers, Cox noted.
Latino student graduation rates are a notable exception. About 64% of Latino students entering university in 2015 graduated within six years, nearly approaching the national average of 68%. That graduation rate was closer to 52% for Latino students enrolled in 2006.
Enrollment of students who identify as Latino has also skyrocketed during this period, Cox told commissioners, and that increased presence on campus along with institutional efforts likely helped boost graduation rates .
“I welcome the continued investment by institutions and government to improve the culture and environment for Latino and other BIPOC communities,” said Commissioner Ricardo Lujan-Valerio. “…Trends will only improve if we see these changes taking place in higher education.”
Wages rise disproportionately
College degrees help boost wages, all of which exceeded the state’s median wage, according to a separate report by the commission that studied the long-term outcomes of Oregon students beginning high school in 2006. Students who did not graduate after high school were still earning below the median wage ten years after high school.
Wages made by community college graduates and university graduates have improved over time, Cox told the commission Thursday, a net positive effect on the state’s goal of seeing wages rise.
Racial and ethnic income gaps have narrowed over time among students earning community college degrees, government data shows. But that doesn’t apply to bachelor’s degrees.
Five years out of school, racial earnings gaps are wider among 2015 graduates than among 2006 graduates, commission data show.
While most student groups still saw income increases between 2011 and 2020, black college graduates saw their incomes decline 10% over that period, state data shows.
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Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or (503) 260-3430.