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‘Intersection’ of Race and Other Factors Shapes Success in College

Among college students whose mothers lacked a college degree, six-year graduation rates were higher for women than for men, but there was no such gender gap among black students whose mothers had a degree.

That’s one finding of a study published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (log-in required). The author, Micere Keels, an assistant professor in the University of Chicago’s department of comparative human development, examined how the “intersection” of gender, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status affected student outcomes within a freshman cohort that enrolled at 24 selective colleges in 1999. In short, the study affirmed that persistence is much more than a matter of academic preparation.

In the study, white and Asian students were much more likely than black and Latino students to graduate; women were much more likely than men to graduate; and students with college-educated mothers were more likely to graduate than those whose mothers lacked a degree. Yet, Ms. Keels writes, “the intersection of these factors does not produce simple additive effects.”

After controlling for high-school grade-point averages, for instance, she found that having a mother with a college degree greatly increased the odds that black men would succeed but did not have a significant effect on black women. Among Latino students, a mother’s college degree increased the likelihood that women would graduate, but the same was not true for men. Whether or not a mother had a college degree had no effect on the outcomes of white and Asian students. And Latino men were much more likely to graduate than black men.

Another finding: Despite the gap between the graduation rates of black men and women, there was no such gap between their first-semester grade-point averages. This, Ms. Keels writes, confirms the widely held idea that, especially for black men, earning a degree involves more than mastering course work: “These findings rule out the simple answers of focusing on the narrow goals of better precollege academic preparation and improving their freshman year GPA as the solutions to black male postsecondary persistence.”

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