Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review

Explaining Black-White Differences in College Outcomes at Missouri Public Universities

Academic journal article Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review

Explaining Black-White Differences in College Outcomes at Missouri Public Universities

Article excerpt

Conditional on enrollment at a four-year public university, African American students are less likely to graduate and less likely to graduate with a STEM degree than White students. This article reports on evidence from Missouri showing that these outcome differences in college can be explained entirely by differences in students' academic preparation prior to college enrollment. While this result should not be taken to imply that college-level interventions cannot help to reduce observed college success gaps by race, it does point toward pre-college interventions as being better targeted at their underlying source. (JEL 123,124, J15)

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, First Quarter 2017, 99(1), pp. 77-83.


Racial disparities in college completion rates are large. At just over 40 percent, the sixyear graduation rate for African Americans is over 20 percentage points lower than for Whites nationally (DeAngelo et al. 2011). The completion gap is similar but slightly smaller at public universities (Lynch and Engle, 2010). African Americans are also less likely to complete degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM; Arcidiacono, Aucejo, and Hotz, 2016; Arcidiacono, Aucejo, and Spenner, 2012; and Sass, 2015) and more generally are disproportionately represented in lower-paying fields among college graduates (Carnevale et al., 2016). These disparities in college outcomes are disconcerting given the substantial earnings premiums associated with college completion and degree attainment in more rigorous fields. Moreover, recent evidence suggests that labor-market returns to a college education are increasing faster over time for African Americans relative to Whites (Long, 2010).

This paper reports on gaps in graduation and STEM degree attainment rates between African American and White students conditional on enrollment at a four-year public university in Missouri. Black-White gaps in these outcomes in Missouri are similar to gaps that have been documented elsewhere. In the examination of gaps in both outcomes, a key result is that they can be explained entirely by students' academic preparation prior to enrollment in college.


The findings reported in this article are based on the analysis of administrative microdata provided by the Missouri Department of Higher Education. A panel covering six cohorts of college students entering the Missouri four-year public university system, which includes 13 campuses in total, was constructed for students who enrolled during the years 1996-2001. The analytic sample is restricted to full-time, state-resident, non-transfer students who entered the public university system as college freshman. (1) It is further restricted to exclude non-African-American and non-White students. In total, the analysis covers over 60,000 students. African Americans account for 6.3 percent of the sample. In the 2000 U.S. Census, 11.7 percent of Missourians were African American, which is just below the national average of 12.9 percent. See Arcidiacono and Koedel (2014) for more details about the data.

Each student cohort is tracked for eight years to determine graduation and STEM-attainment outcomes. Students can be tracked throughout the system over the course of the college career, regardless of transfers, but students who exit the system can no longer be tracked. Students who do not graduate or complete a STEM degree in the system within eight years are treated as non-completers.

The 13 campuses in the Missouri public university system vary in terms of selectivity, urbanicity, and curricular focus. It is also notable that two campuses are historically Black universities, although many White students attend these schools as well. For contextual background see Arcidiacono and Koedel (2014), who provide an overview of the system that includes basic information about campus selectivity, graduation rates, racial diversity of the student body, STEM emphasis, and the geographic location of each university in the state. …

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