Education Gaps Don't Fully Explain Why Black Unemployment Is So High

Even when they hold the same degree, African Americans are still much more likely to be looking for a job than white Americans.

Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The economy is improving: Nationally, unemployment is about 5 percent, down from 10 percent in 2009. But for black Americans, the unemployment rate is much higher—for them, the economy is still a disaster. Unemployment among blacks was 9.5 percent during the third quarter of 2015 compared to only 4.5 percent for whites. While the discrepancy in unemployment has been volatile, the current gap is actually slightly larger than the one that existed 15 years ago or in the years directly preceding the recession.

Why is this? Many people point to education as a major cause of this disparity. A higher percentage of white Americans obtain college degrees: 41 percent, compared to the black population’s 22 percent. But data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) show that differences in education can’t explain fully the entirety of the unemployment gap. According to research from Valerie Wilson, an economist at EPI, for black Americans with the same level of education level as white Americans, the unemployment rate is consistently nearly twice as high.

Wilson looks at census data and finds, unsurprisingly, unemployment is highest for those who didn’t attend college at all. Among those who hadn’t completed high school, whites had an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. But for black Americans, the situation was much more extreme: Their unemployment rate was almost two-and-a-half times higher, at 16.6 percent. And a gap persists even among those who have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, with an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent for black Americans compared to 2.4 percent for white Americans with the same degree.

For every level of educational attainment, black Americans have unemployment rates that are similar to or higher than those of less educated white Americans. For instance, white Americans who only obtained a high-school diploma have a very similar unemployment rate to black Americans who completed at least a college education: 4.6 percent vs 4.1 percent. “This disparity suggests a race penalty whereby blacks at each level of education have unemployment rates that are the same as or higher than less educated whites,” writes Wilson.

Unemployment by Education and Race

Part of the problem starts before the job hunt. Despite rising college attendance, black students are still less likely than their white counterparts to attend prestigious schools that may give them connections or a leg up in the career world. And once at college, blacks are less likely to graduate in six years than their white peers. But the numbers show that even when blacks are successful in attending and completing college, they’re still less likely to be gainfully employed than their white peers, hinting that less education isn’t the entire problem, and that attempts to boost educational attainment figures among blacks won’t be the entire solution.