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COWS report to be released at summit examines racial disparity in Wisconsin's college systems

by Matthew Braunginn | Apr 17, 2018

Matthew Braunginn is a senior associate at COWS, a UW-Madison research and policy center. Below he offers a preview of COWS' new report, which ​will be released at WISCAPE's April 26 summit, Educating a Diverse Wisconsin.

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The stark chasm that separates black and white educational, economic, and social outcomes in Wisconsin has been long documented. In COWS’ 2017 report, Wisconsin’s Extreme Racial Disparity, we summarized evidence across data sources, including the striking statistic that while 93 percent of white students graduated from high school in the state, just 64 percent of black students did. The distance between those outcomes was the most extreme in the nation.

Turning our attention to the racial disparity in the state’s college systems, COWS will release a report at WISCAPE’s Educating a Diverse Wisconsin summit. Do students ​within the UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System represent the diversity of the state’s population? Do graduates look like the student population, or are students of color less likely to graduate than their white peers? To get at these questions requires looking at enrollment and completion rates for these two systems.

Turning first to the UW System, we will provide data to show whether UW System students are demographically representative of Wisconsin’s high school graduates. The short answer is that they are not. UW System students are substantially less diverse than our state’s high school graduates.

The UW System student body is less diverse than our K-12 system suggests it should be. But what about graduation? Do students of color in the UW System graduate at the same rate as their white peers? Again, the answer is no. For example, for the 2010 enrollment year looking at six-year graduation rates, 62.8 percent of white students graduated from UW System schools, compared to 48.2 percent of Latino(a) students and only 31.9 percent of black students. These facts are grim, but there is also some good news: Since the enrolling class of 2000 at UW-Madison, the disparity in graduation rates between students of color and white students has steadily been reduced.

The Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) shows a very different picture. First, we considered the extent to which the enrolled student population of WTCS is representative of the state’s population. And in fact, students enrolled at WTCS are more diverse than the state’s population on the whole. In 2014, for example, about 20 percent of WTCS students were students of color.

Compared to the UW System, a much smaller share of enrollees actually graduate in WTCS. (For this reason, we do not focus ​on disparities in graduation rates in the report.) However, given that 20 percent of enrollees are students of color, if graduation probabilities were the same regardless of race, then 20 percent of graduates should also be students of color. It is clear, then, that white students are more likely to graduate than students of color: Students of color make up 16 percent of WTCS graduates. Still, this share of the graduating class is fairly diverse and more diverse than the state’s population.

At the summit, we’ll offer a deeper dive on this data and also offer some description of best practices in closing graduation gaps. We look forward to thinking about what the UW System, WTCS, and the state of Wisconsin can do to improve graduation rates for students of color. Given the critical connection between postsecondary degrees and achieving a decent standard of living for working families, closing these gaps should be an educational, economic, and moral imperative.

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