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The American dream is failing black college graduates

Graduates of historically black Howard University at the commencement ceremony.
Graduates of historically black Howard University at the commencement ceremony.
Allison Shelley/Getty Images for DKC
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Black and white students go to college at about the same rates, but white students are much more likely to earn a degree. And even when black students get a college degree, they're much more likely to be unemployed.

A new study of college graduates from the Center for Economic and Policy Research looks at unemployment and underemployment for 22- to 27-year-olds. These are students with bachelor's degrees who graduated into a weak job market, and their unemployment numbers show it: about 6 percent want a job and don't have one.

But the situation is much worse for recent graduates who are black, 12 percent of whom are unemployed. (11 percent of workers overall without a high school diploma are unemployed.)


The survey found high underemployment — working in a job that doesn't typically require a college degree — for all graduates, but again, even higher underemployment for black college graduates:


There are some reasons to be skeptical on the underemployment figures. Whether the Bureau of Labor Statistics (which finds similar levels of underemployment) understates the need for a college degree is the subject of intense economic debate. If the US were really overproducing college graduates, some argue, they wouldn't command such a wage premium versus high school graduates.

The study points out a few possible reasons for the disparity, including that graduates with typical "black" names face a difficult time in the labor market. But there are other explanations, too: research has shown black college students are much less likely to attend prestigious or highly selective colleges, which might also put them at a disadvantage.

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