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Home » Clarion » 2021 » February 2021 » Barriers to college attainment

Barriers to college attainment


The PSC has long been concerned about accessibility to higher education in New York City.

An inclusive and equitable economic recovery in New York will require major new investments in job training, apprenticeships, digital literacy programs and other skills-building initiatives that help lower-income New Yorkers access good jobs. The city’s employers should also rise to this challenge, making fundamental changes in how they recruit, hire, train and promote employees, and shifting toward practices that value skills alongside educational credentials. But it will also require policy makers to make a bold commitment to help more New Yorkers achieve a college credential.

While New York City is home to an almost unparalleled concentration of highly educated people, this report finds glaring and persistent educational attainment gaps by race, ethnicity and geography. Just 20% of Hispanic New Yorkers, 27% of Black New Yorkers and 45% of Asian New Yorkers hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 64% of white New Yorkers. In 39 of the city’s 55 census-defined neighborhoods, fewer than one-quarter of working-age Hispanic residents hold a bachelor’s degree – and in 14 neighborhoods, the rate is under 15%. In 29 neighborhoods, fewer than 30% of Black residents hold a bachelor’s degree.


An analysis of U.S. Census data on college attainment rates across the five boroughs shows a city sharply divided by educational credentials. For instance, while 87% of working-age residents in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and 86% of those living on the Upper East Side hold at least a bachelor’s degree, the rate is just 15% in Brooklyn’s East New York, and 13% in Mount Hope and 12% in Hunts Point, both in the Bronx. In one-third of the city’s U.S. Census-defined neighborhoods – 18 out of 55 – fewer than 30% of residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree. In eight neighborhoods, fewer than 18% of residents do.

Overall, 2.84 million working-age adults across the five boroughs do not have a four-year degree or higher. This includes nearly a million working-age New Yorkers in both Brooklyn (867,129) and Queens (862,209), and roughly 600,000 in the Bronx (596,462). In every borough but Manhattan, the number of working-age adults with a high school diploma or less outnumbers those with a bachelor’s degree.
For New York to succeed in rebuilding a more equitable economy, city and state policy makers – working with employers and philanthropy – will need to prioritize closing gaps in college attainment and helping far more New Yorkers get on the path to a credential. This is especially the case given the city’s increasingly bifurcated economy, which over the past decade produced a large number of low-wage jobs that were accessible to individuals without a college credential and a smaller number of higher-wage jobs that mainly went to those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

These trends have only accelerated during the pandemic-induced economic crisis, which has disproportionately impacted workers without a college credential and industries with large numbers of accessible jobs. The challenges are compounded by the likelihood of a slow recovery for New York’s tourism economy, which supports a higher share of jobs that are accessible without a college degree than any other sector, the acceleration of automation across a broad cross-section of the city’s industries and occupations – such as food service, logistics, construction and bookkeeping – and deepening problems for brick-and-mortar retailers even as e-commerce booms.


To be sure, New York has made progress in boosting college attainment. Over the past decade, college attainment rates increased in every borough and across all racial groups. Citywide, the share of working-age residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher shot up from 35.1% to 40.1% between 2008 and 2018. The rate increased in all but three of the city’s 55 U.S. Census-defined neighborhoods. In total, 290,863 more working-age adults across the city had at least a bachelor’s degree in 2018 than in 2008. The City University of New York (CUNY) is also graduating more New Yorkers: 57,139 in 2019, up 44% over the past 10 years.

But the growth in degree attainment has not been rapid or equitable enough to keep pace with the changing economy – or to spark meaningful changes in the racial composition of New York’s high- and middle-wage industries. At the same time, some of the recent gains in college attainment are likely the result of highly educated people moving into the city. Indeed, this analysis shows that college attainment rates increased fastest in gentrifying neighborhoods, with many of the greatest gains among white residents.
Other findings of our report include:

No other city has more college-educated residents, but the high overall number masks enormous disparities by race, ethnicity and geography.

• While 65% of working-age Manhattan residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, the rate is considerably lower in each of the other four boroughs: 39.6% in Brooklyn, 35.7% on Staten Island, 34% in Queens and 20.5% in the Bronx.
• The bachelor’s attainment rate is over 50% in just one-fifth (11) of the city’s 55 neighborhoods.
• In eight neighborhoods across the city – all in the Bronx and Brooklyn – fewer than 18% of residents have a bachelor’s degree: Hunts Point/Longwood/Melrose (12.2%), Morris Heights/Fordham South/Mount Hope (12.7%), Belmont/Crotona Park East/East Tremont (14%), East New York/Starrett City (15.5%), Brownsville/Ocean Hill (16.1%), Bedford Park/Fordham North/Norwood (16.2%). Concourse/Highbridge/Mount Eden (17.3%), and Castle Hill/Clason Point/Parkchester (17.5%).
• In 39 of the city’s 55 neighborhoods, less than one-quarter of Hispanic residents hold a bachelor’s or higher level of educational attainment. In 16 neighborhoods, fewer than 25% of Black residents have a bachelor’s degree. The same is true in two neighborhoods for Asian residents and four neighborhoods for white residents.

While there are racial disparities in college attainment across the city, several neighborhoods have particularly wide gaps.

• In Jackson Heights, while only 11.1% of the neighborhood’s Hispanic residents hold a bachelor’s degree, the rate is 57.8% for white residents.
• In Bushwick, 71.1% of white residents have a bachelor’s or higher, compared to 24.5% of Black residents and 14.1% of Hispanic residents.
• In East Harlem, the bachelor’s attainment rate is 74.9% for white residents, 26.9% for Black residents and 19.0% for Hispanic residents.
• In the Concourse/Highbridge/Mount Eden neighborhood in the Bronx, 46.2% of white residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 13.7% of Hispanic residents and 22.9% of Black residents.

The largest gains in college attainment over the past decade have occurred in gentrifying neighborhoods, exacerbating racial and ethnic achievement gaps.
• In Brownsville/Ocean Hill, the share of white residents with a bachelor’s degree nearly quadrupled, from 11.4% to 42.7%. The increases were smaller for Black (11.5% to 16%) and Hispanic (6.2% to 12.2%) residents.
• In East Flatbush/Farragut/Rugby, bachelor’s degree attainment rates for white residents similarly shot up by nearly 400% (14.8% to 57.7%), whereas the gains were more modest for Black residents (19.6% to 26.5%) and Hispanics (10.6% to 21.2%).
• In Jackson Heights/North Corona, the share of white residents with a bachelor’s degree went from 39.6% to 57.8%, but the share of Hispanics fell from 12.8% to 11.1%.
• The share of Bushwick residents with a bachelor’s degree skyrocketed from 13.8% in 2008 to 33.5% in 2018, yet the biggest gains were among white residents (41.7% to 71.1%). The gains were notable but more modest among Black (14.6% to 24.5%) and Hispanic (8.2% to 14.1%) residents.
• In Concourse/Highbridge/Mount Eden, the increase was higher for white residents (18.4% to 46.2%) than for Black residents (13.8% to 22.9%) and Hispanic residents (7.9% to 13.7%).
• In Prospect Lefferts/Wingate/Crown Heights South, bachelor’s attainment is up 14.3% higher overall, but up just 4.9% among Black residents despite their making up 63.1% of the working-age population. Twenty-three percent of Black residents of Prospect Lefferts hold a bachelor’s degree, compared with 67.4% of white residents
• In Central Harlem, the number of Hispanic residents with a bachelor’s degree is up 118%, white residents up 113.2%, and Asian residents up 79.9%, but the number of Black residents with a bachelor’s degree has grown just 22.7%, despite Black residents making up 53.2% of the neighborhood’s working-age population.

Nearly 700,000 working-age New Yorkers have completed some college but have no degree, signaling an important opportunity to boost college attainment.
• A reported 678,871 working-age residents across New York City – 14.3% of all New Yorkers between 25 and 64 – have some college, but no degree.
• This includes roughly 220,000 Hispanic New Yorkers, 210,00 Black residents, 170,000 white residents, and 61,000 Asian residents.
• Twenty-one percent of working-age Black New Yorkers have some college, but no degree, compared with 17% of Hispanic New Yorkers, 11% of white New Yorkers and 8% of Asian New Yorkers.

There are many complex factors driving disparities in educational attainment. Some populations are aging out of the workforce, while influxes of immigrants, recent college graduates and others are reshaping neighborhood demographics.

But the bottom line is that New York City needs to help thousands more city residents – particularly New Yorkers of color in lower-income households – get on the path to a college credential. Doing so is not only crucial to creating a more equitable and inclusive economy by helping New Yorkers from all backgrounds access the good jobs of today and tomorrow. It will also be critical to reviving the city’s battered economy and meeting the workforce needs of city employers in an environment where a global pandemic may force businesses to rely on the local workforce more than ever before.

Making meaningful progress will require significant new educational investments, from early childhood through the city’s public community and senior colleges. It will necessitate improvements in college readiness among the city’s high school students, as well as continued improvements in graduation rates at CUNY – particularly for students in its community colleges. At the same time, the massive number of New Yorkers without a college credential – including nearly 1.2 million Black and Hispanic residents who have at most a high school diploma – suggests that city officials need to significantly ramp up adult workforce training programs. Although this data brief is intended to shed light on the scope and scale of the disparities in college attainment across the city, there are a number of steps we believe city officials should take.

Set a 10-year target to achieve a 50% increase in the number of Black and Hispanic New Yorkers with a college credential.

A bold goal can help drive this issue forward, but only if it is backed up with a multifaceted set of policies and investments to get there. To rebuild a more inclusive economy, New York’s next mayor should make boosting college success a top priority.

Double community college graduation rates by expanding evidence-backed programs that have proven effective.

It’s not enough to help New Yorkers graduate high school and enroll in college; persistently low college completion rates demand that city and state leaders do much more to ensure that low-income students who do enroll in public colleges can graduate with a credential. Despite some clear progress in recent years, graduation rates remain painfully low: just 22% of students at CUNY’s community colleges earn a two-year degree within three years.

To dramatically boost college success, city and state leaders should create a Student Success Fund to scale up evidence-backed interventions that work, starting with making CUNY’s successful ASAP initative universal for all community college students. For many students, the non-tuition costs of attending college prove far more challenging than simply affording tuition. New York can help tackle these barriers by granting every community college student a free MetroCard, subsidizing technology and broadband costs for low-income students, and expanding free on-campus and community-based childcare to all student parents. The city and state should also incentivize the continuing push to reimagine counterproductive remedial education, such as by expanding the CUNY Start program and initiatives designed to help students start earning college credits from day one.

Expand innovative alternative pathways to earn a college credential.

While a four-year degree is clearly linked to much higher lifetime earnings, these high-stakes, high-cost degrees should not be the sole focus of higher education. Policy makers and education officials should work with industry leaders to develop and expand short-term academic certificate and industry-recognized credential programs that can stack up to a two- or four-year degree. A major expansion of academic certificate programs could provide quicker access to job opportunities and income gains while helping far more New Yorkers earn college degrees while working. Likewise, the city should greatly expand efforts to enroll high school students in early college programs – including through career-focused programs like apprenticeships. In addition, city leaders should launch a major campaign to help more of the nearly 700,000 working-age New Yorkers with some college but no degree to access job-relevant, credit-bearing courses that can help them reach the finish line.

Include investments in skills-building programs that go beyond college degrees.

A comprehensive plan to expand access to good jobs should also include non-degree investments in skills training for adults who don’t have a college credential, such as apprenticeships, workforce training and tech skills-building programs, which can provide valuable credentials for New Yorkers looking to gain a foothold in high-growth sectors such as technology, health care and advanced manufacturing – or who see the need to reskill as the needs of the economy change – but for whom a traditional college degree may not be the best option. These programs should be developed in partnership with industry leaders and small businesses, result in marketable credentials, focus on the neighborhoods and communities with the greatest need, and include wraparound supports for the same non-tuition barriers – from childcare to technology – that derail aspiring low-income college students.


This analysis is conducted on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 and 2018 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. More specifically, we look at educational attainment for working-age (age 25–64) residents of the five boroughs of New York City.

This report was reprinted with permission from Center for an Urban Future. For the full report, go to

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