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Black Women Are Now The Most Educated Group In The U.S.

But what does it mean?

Valedictorian at Morgan State University, 1945 (Getty Images)

The National Center for Education Statistics released a new suite of college enrollment stats; its findings are remarkable. Namely, there’s a higher percentage of African-American women enrolled in college than any other group. This 9.7 percent enrollment rate tops Asian women (8.7 percent), white women (7.1 percent) and white men (6.1 percent).

The report also notes, “Black females earned 68 percent of associate’s degrees, 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s degrees, and 65 percent of all doctor’s degrees awarded to black students.” And in the key demographic of 18- to 24-year-old black women, over half are now enrolled in college.

Sounds pretty great right? Now we can just blast out this proof-of-progress on social media, feel good, and move on to more pressing issues.

Obviously the big picture is not quite so tidy. If you’re looking to get bummed out, there’s an avalanche of labor statistics to suit the mood. As in, despite all the education, African-American women have only a tiny fraction of leadership roles in the workforce (there is but one black woman CEO on the Fortune 500 list). As of 2013, black women earned but 64 cents to every white male dollar. And according to a report from Black Women’s Roundtable, they are “more likely than any group in America to work for poverty-level wages.”

None of this is to throw cold water on a significant milestone; it simply speaks to the need for perspective. We caught up with Nell Irvin Painter, one of the foremost scholars on race and gender in America, to learn how much weight she thinks we should give the new findings.

You’ve surely heard about these new education statistics.

Oh, yes. I put up something on my Facebook page. As you might expect, there is a lot of pride there, the sense of something to be celebrated.

What was your initial take?

In some sense, this is more about women than it is about black women. The fact that women are going to college more than men is old news. This is part of a larger phenomenon but—as with many things—it’s more extreme in the black community. The fact that black women are going to college more than black men is even older news.

Broadly, what do you think is behind the stats?

Whatever’s happening in our society that makes women going to college more than men, that's the best explanation. Further, for generations, black Americans have seen education as an important way of mitigating discrimination. It’s a particular truism in our community that you need an education to succeed. It’s one area where we’re able to say, “You can’t take that away from me.”

How does this contrast with the status quo a generation or two ago?

Not so long ago, jobs for black women were highly circumscribed; our choices were not wide. We couldn't do on-the-job training to become a plumber or a longshoreman, for instance. Just going to college to become a teacher was a significant step for black women, and for all women. It was seen as a lifesaver, or an escape hatch.

But this new data did not shock you?

It’s a little surprising, but much of this has been going on for some time. It was back in the ‘80s that women started to outnumber men at universities. Even places like UNC Chapel Hill that had started as men’s schools were seeing a majority of women students. So this has been happening for awhile.

That doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. Part of what makes news and what makes history is how we interpret raw material. We have to curate it somehow, make sense of the world around us. Headlines about black women being more educated tell a story about progress, and that’s not a bad thing.

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