Black College Graduates in the Labor Market, 1979 and 1989

By Meisenheimer, Joseph R., II | Monthly Labor Review, November 1990 | Go to article overview

Black College Graduates in the Labor Market, 1979 and 1989


Meisenheimer, Joseph R., II, Monthly Labor Review


Black college graduates in the labor market, 1979 and 1989 Black educator Booker T. Washington espoused the philosophy that education is the path to economic and social equality for blacks. Indeed, education, particularly college education, has long been regarded as the path to expanded job opportunities, higher earnings, and enhanced social standing for all people.

A substantial educational gap between whites and blacks has narrowed over time, but it still persists. In 1979, 9 percent of blacks ages 25 to 64 had completed 4 or more years of college; by comparison, 19 percent of whites had done so. The 1980's saw considerable progress for both groups, but no narrowing of the gap; in 1989, 13 percent of blacks and 24 percent of whites had completed 4 or more years of college. (1)

Many of the economic disparities between blacks and whites have been attributed, in large part, to the relatively lower educational levels (human capital) of blacks. (2) And much of the improvement in the economic status of blacks over time has been attributed to their increasing educational levels. (3) Differences in education, however, do not completely explain the labor market disparities between blacks and whites. For example, among college-educated men, black graduates have substantially higher unemployment rates and lower median earnings than their white counterparts.

This article compares the labor market experience of civilian college graduates by sex and race in 1989 and looks at the changes that took place for these groups over the preceding decade. It then examines the economic rewards of higher education for blacks by comparing the employment and earnings characteristics of black college graduates with those of black high school graduates. The data used are from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a sample survey of about 60,000 households, conducted monthly for the Bureau of Labor Statistics by the Bureau of the Census. (4)

College-graduate differences

Some differences between black and white college graduates in their labor market characteristics stem from differences in the age and sex composition of the two groups. For example, black college graduates are somewhat younger than their white counterparts. In 1989, 39 percent of black graduates (ages 25 to 64) were in the youngest age group--25 to 34--compared with 34 percent of white graduates, reflecting the fact that relatively fewer older blacks attended college. Another demographic difference between black and white college graduates is that a larger share of black graduates are women--54 percent in 1989 and 53 percent in 1979. (5) By comparison, 44 percent of white graduates in 1989 and 40 percent in 1979 were women. These age and gender differences can distort racial comparisons. For this reason, an examination of labor force characteristics should focus on specific age and sex groups.

Labor force participation. The labor force participation rate is the proportion of a population group that is either employed or actively seeking employment. The incidence of labor force participation differs substantially between the sexes, in that men participate at higher rates than women at every age. As shown in table 1, among men ages 25 to 64, black college graduates' rates were just below those of their white counterparts in both 1979 (92.9 to 95.7) and 1989 (93.3 to 95.1). The gap grows larger at successively lower educational levels. For example, among men with 4 years of high school, the participation rate for blacks in 1989 was nearly 4 percentage points lower than that for whites, and among those who did not complete high school, the spread was about 12 points.

Table 1 also shows that college-educated black women participate in the labor force at much higher rates than their white peers, although that gap narrowed considerably during the 1980's. Other than the participation rates for high school dropouts, which are essentially the same for both races, black women have higher rates than white women at each level of education. …

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