Black Women are the Most Educated Group in the U.S.

Woman smiling during graduating
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American women have had to fight for their right to an education. Well into the twentieth century, women were discouraged from pursuing higher education, as it was popular notion that too much education would make a woman unfit for marriage. Woman of color and poor women also experienced other structural impediments to their education for much of the nation’s history that made it less likely for them to pursue an education.

However, times have certainly changed. In fact, since 1981, more women than men have been earning college degrees. Furthermore, these days, women outnumber men on many college campuses, making up 57 percent of college students. As a college professor at a large, land-grant university, I notice that I often have many more women than men in my courses. In many disciplines, though certainly not all, gone are the days were women were numbered few and far between. Women are unabashedly seeking educational opportunities and charting new territories.

Things have also changed for women of color, particularly those from historically underrepresented minorities. As legalized discrimination has given way to more opportunities, women of color have become more educated. While there is certainly room for improvement, Black, Latina, and Native American women are continuing to matriculate onto college campuses in increasingly larger numbers.  Indeed, some studies show that Black Women are the most educated group in the U.S. But what does this mean for their opportunities, wages, and quality of life?

The Numbers

Despite stereotypes that call African Americans lazy or stupid, Blacks in the United States are among those most likely to earn a postsecondary degree. For example, The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that from academic years 1999–2000 to 2009–10 the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to Black students increased by 53 percent and the number of associate degrees earned by Black students increased by 89 percent. Blacks are making headway in graduate education as well, with, for example, the numbers of master’s degrees earned by Black students more than doubling from 1999–2000 to 2009–10 increasing by a whopping 125 percent.

These numbers are certainly impressive, and belie the notions that Black people are anti-intellectual and uninterested in school. However, when we take a closer look at race and gender, the picture is even more striking.

The claim that Black women are the most educated bloc of Americans comes from a 2014 study that cites the percentage of Black women enrolled in college in relation to their other race-gender groups. However, considering enrollment alone gives an incomplete picture. Black women are also starting to outpace other groups in earning degrees. For example, although Black women only make up 12.7 percent of the female population in the country, they consistently make up over 50 percent—and sometimes much more—of the number of Blacks who receive postsecondary degrees. Percentage-wise, Black women outpace white women, Latinas, Asian/Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans in this arena as well.

Yet despite the fact that Black women are enrolled in and graduating from school in the highest percentages across racial and gender lines, negative depictions of Black women abound in popular media and even in science. In 2013 Essence magazine reported that negative imagery of black women appears twice as often as positive depictions. Images of the “welfare queen” “baby mama” and “angry Black woman,” among other images, shame working class Black women’s struggles and reduce Black women’s complex humanity. These depictions are not just hurtful, they have an impact on Black women’s lives and opportunities.  

Education and Opportunities

High enrollment numbers are indeed impressive; however, despite being termed as the most educated group of people in the United States, Black women still make far less money than their white counterparts. Take for instance, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. While Equal Pay Day—the day in the year that represents at which point the average woman makes as much as the average man—is in April, it takes Black women four more months to catch up. Black women were paid just 63 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2014, which means it takes the typical Black woman nearly seven extra months to be paid what the average white man took home back on December 31. (The figures are even worse for Native women and Latinas, who have to wait until September and November, respectively). Bottom line, on average, Black women earn $19,399 less than white men every year.  

There are many structural reasons why Black women, despite this impressive increase in education, are currently seeing very little fruits of their labor. For one, Black women are more likely than other groups of women nationally to work in the lowest-paying occupations (e.g. sectors such as the service industry, health care, and education) and are less likely to work in the higher-paying fields such as engineering or to hold managerial positions.

Furthermore, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of Black women employed as full-time minimum-wage workers is higher than that of any other racial group. This makes the current Fight for Fifteen Campaign, which is agitating for an increased minimum wage, and other  labor fights very important.

A troubling fact about wage disparities is that they are true across a range of occupations. Black women working in customer service make 79¢ for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. Yet even Black women who are highly educated, such as those working as physicians and surgeons make just 52¢ for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. This disparity is striking and speaks to the pervasive inequity that Black women face whether they are employed in low paying or high paying fields.

Hostile work environments and discriminatory practices also affect Black women’s work life. Take the story of Cheryl Hughes. An electrical engineer by training, Hughes discovered that despite her education, years of experience, and training, she was being underpaid:

“While working there, I befriended a white male engineer. He had asked the salaries of our white co-workers. In 1996, he asked my salary; I replied, ‘$44,423.22.’ He told me that I, an African American woman, was being discriminated against. The next day, he gave me pamphlets from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite learning that I was underpaid, I worked diligently to improve my skills. My performance evaluations were good. When a young white woman was hired at my firm, my friend told me that she earned $2,000 more than I did. At this time, I had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and three years of electrical engineering experience. This young woman had one year of co-op experience and a bachelor’s degree in engineering.”

Hughes asked for redress and spoke out against this unequal treatment, even suing her former employer. In response, she was fired and her cases were dismissed: “For 16 years after that I worked as an engineer receiving taxable income of $767,710.27. From the day I began working as an engineer through retirement, my losses would be in excess of $1 million in earnings.  Some would have you believe that women earn less because of career choices, not negotiating their salaries, and leaving the industry to have children. I chose a lucrative field of study, tried to negotiate my salary without success, and stayed in the workforce with children.”

Quality of Life

Black women are going to school, graduating, and trying to break the proverbial glass ceiling. So, how do they fare in life overall?

Unfortunately, despite the encouraging numbers around education, Black women’s quality of life looks downright dismal when you take a look at health statistics.

For example, high blood pressure is found among African American women than any other group of women: 46 percent of African American women 20 years of age and older have hypertension, while only 31 percent of white women and 29 percent of Hispanic women in the same age range do. Put another way: almost half of all adult Black women suffer from hypertension.

Could these negative health outcomes be explained away by poor personal choices? Perhaps for some, but because of the pervasiveness of these reports, it clear that Black women’s quality life is shaped not only by personal choice but also by a whole host of socioeconomic factors. As the African American Policy Institute reports: “The stress of anti-Black racism and sexism, coupled with the stress of serving as the primary caretakers of their communities, can take a toll on Black women’s health, even if they have the economic privilege to send their children to good schools, live in a wealthy neighborhood and have a high-level career. In fact, well-educated Black women have worse birth outcomes than white women who haven’t finished high school. Black women are also disproportionately subject to various factors--from poor-quality environments in impoverished neighborhoods, to food deserts to a lack of access to healthcare --that make them more likely to contract life-threatening diseases, from HIV to cancer.”

How could work be connected to these outcomes? Considering the prevalence of low paying work across occupations and racist and sexist work environments, it is unsurprising that Black women suffer from health-related disparities.