If African-American and Hispanic workers continue to lag so far behind white educational-achievement levels, even as those minorities comprise an increasing proportion of the overall workforce, employers may find it increasingly difficult to recruit the high-skill workers that many say they are already struggling to identify. "The problem is that, in the past, we could get away with low-attainment rates among minority populations given the demographic breakdown of the country," says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation who studies education. "But as minorities become the majority, it no longer becomes sustainable to have these low-attainment rates."
One especially troubling trend is that African-Americans and Hispanics lag particularly far behind whites in college completion in many of the cities that are thriving the most as the economy continues to recover. The 10 metropolitan areas with the widest black-white gaps in college-attainment levels include such affluent communities as Bridgeport, Connecticut; San Francisco; Trenton, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; Austin, Texas; New York; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Boston. Each of those areas (except Austin) rank among the 30 communities with the highest median incomes; yet in each, the share of African-Americans holding a four-year degree or more trails the percentage of whites by at least 25 percentage points. "It is clear that growth alone does not solve these issues, and we really need to look at structural issues," says Sarah Treuhaft, director of Equitable Growth Initiatives at PolicyLink, an Oakland-based research group that provided data for the analysis.
This Next America analysis of metropolitan educational trends draws on data compiled by the National Equity Atlas. The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Southern California's Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, or PERE. Using Census and other government data, the Atlas provides a detailed portrait of demographic, educational, and income trends in the nation's largest metropolitan areas.
For this analysis, PolicyLink and PERE provided Next America data on the 150 biggest metropolitan areas; the education data is drawn from the averaged results from 2008-2012 of the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. In a series of stories over the next two weeks, Next America will explore in greater detail the skill and education gaps between whites and minorities in the workforce. In the coming months, Next America will report extensively on public and private efforts to close those gaps, and the broad implications of growing diversity for the nation's workforce.
Underscoring the national breadth of this challenge, the gaps in college attainment between whites on the one hand, and African-Americans and Hispanics on the other, persist in cities of all sizes and in all regions of the country. While many of the widest gaps exist in cities that are doing well, the disparities endure in communities all across the economic spectrum, from San Francisco to Salinas, California, and from Austin to Akron, Ohio.
Huge gaps are present in the largest metropolitan areas like New York City (where 50 percent of adult whites, compared with 24 percent of African-Americans and 17 percent of Latinos, hold college degrees), Los Angeles (where the numbers are 49, 25, and 11), and Chicago (46, 21, and 13). Minorities also trail whites in much smaller places like Reading, Pennsylvania; Wichita, Kansas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Big disparities define Sunbelt metropolitan areas rapidly adding jobs and population, such as Houston (where 41 percent of whites but only 24 percent of African-Americans and 12 percent of Hispanics hold college degrees) and Denver (where the numbers are 49, 25 and 13). But the differences are deep as well in more weathered Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee (where 40 percent of whites, 14 percent of African Americans, and only 11 percent of Hispanics hold at least a four-year degree) and Philadelphia (where the numbers are 41, 18, and 16).