Are Black Diplomas Worth Less?

The passage
of Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative
(CCRI), has signaled to many the beginning of the end for affirmative
action [see Peter Schrag's "When Preferences Disappear"].
Evidence from California shows, however, that while
the gap between white and minority educational achievement has
narrowed, the gap between white and minority wages has continued
to increase. This evidence strongly suggests that, contrary to
the claims of many CCRI supporters, California's labor markets
have not outgrown the need for interventions to correct bias,
intentional or otherwise.

Even conservative economists acknowledge that affirmative action
was responsible in the late 1960s and 1970s for raising blacks'
wages and bringing them more in line with the qualifications of
black workers. But whether minority (especially black) wages are
still less than what their qualifications warrant is a more difficult
question than it appears. Educational attainment (measured
by years of schooling completed) and achievement (measured by
test scores) remain higher among whites than among minority workers.
White workers are also paid more. The key question is whether
differences in qualifications fully justify the wage gaps. If
educational admissions and labor markets now work "perfectly"
and reward Californians by merit, as some opponents of affirmative
action claim, there might be widespread agreement that affirmative
action should have no place. And if unequal qualifications entirely
explain wage inequality, it might make more sense to emphasize
improving minority job applicants' educational qualifications.
But if, on the other hand, improved education
among minority youths does not narrow the wage gap, affirmative
action or some other market interventions may be reasonable.

The trend data are dramatic and troubling. In the last two decades,
the educational qualifications gap between white and minority
workers has narrowed sharply, as black and Latino attainment and
achievement have improved relative to that of whites. But just
as dramatically the wage gap has grown. The overall wage gap has
not only widened from what social scientists refer to as a "fallacy
of composition"—that is, minorities have not disproportionately
increased their attainment at levels (like high school diplomas)
where relative wages have fallen. The wage gap has widened even
for workers with the same education levels: California's minority
high school graduates now earn less, compared to white high school
graduates, than they used to. The same is true of minority workers
who have attended some college and minority workers who are college

The mere existence of a widening wage gap, even in the face of
a shrinking educational gap, does not by itself prove discrimination.
Measurable education is not the only relevant qualification workers
bring to employment. Some affirmative action opponents insist,
for example, that even if attainment and achievement qualifications
are relatively more equal, minority job applicants have inferior
discipline and work habits and that this difference justifies
rational distinctions in wage outcomes. Others claim that a spatial
mismatch between minority applicants and the location of available
jobs creates a relative oversupply of applicants for jobs minorities
can reach, leading to average wages that are lower for minority
workers than for white workers of similar qualifications. Still
others claim that blacks and Latinos seek jobs in occupations
or sectors (say, government rather than entrepreneurship) with
lower average earnings.

There are good reasons to believe, however, that these explanations
are incomplete. For example, while blacks may be overrepresented
in California's government executive positions where wages are
lower than in comparable private jobs, blacks are also overrepresented
in government blue-collar jobs that pay more than comparable private
employment. Similarly, the spatial mismatch hypothesis has more
power to explain widening wage gaps for high school-educated workers
than for college-educated workers, who are more mobile and not
trapped in urban ghettos. None of this shows that affirmative
action is the best solution. Other policies such as "empowerment
zones" or further minimum-wage increases may be better. But
the data support a strong case for some intervention.


Blacks have been closing the educational attainment gap at almost
every level (the only exception being that while black females
have increased their college graduation rate, white females have
increased their college graduation rate even more). Between 1980
and 1995, while the high school graduation rate for California's
male white workers, aged 25 to 34, increased from 94 percent to
96 percent, the graduation rate of black male workers increased
from 90 percent to 95 percent. Between 1980 and 1995, the share
of young white workers who had attended some college (including
community colleges or technical institutes) rose only slightly,
from 68 percent to 70 percent; the share of black workers with
some college education increased from 57 percent to 63 percent.
And while the college graduation rate of young white males in
the workforce barely changed, going from 34 percent in 1980 to
35 percent in 1995, the college graduation rate for comparable
blacks increased from 18 percent to 20 percent, though that still
left a large absolute difference.

The educational attainment gap between black and white females
also narrowed at the "high school completed" and "some
college" levels. Indeed, by 1995, the high school graduation
rate of employed black females (99 percent) was higher than for
comparable whites. Likewise, more young female black than white
workers had attended college (74 percent versus 73 percent), reversing
their 1980 disadvantage (56 percent versus 62 percent).

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Interpreting similar data for Latinos is difficult because many
data sources do not distinguish native-born from immigrant Latinos.
We do, however, have census data for native-born Latino workers
in 1980 and 1990 showing that for males, the attainment gap has
stayed about the same. For young Latina workers, high school graduation
rates jumped from 82 percent in 1980 to 85 percent in 1990, while
white female rates were unchanged. The share of young Latina workers
who had attended some college jumped dramatically, from 39 percent
in 1980 to 55 percent in 1990; the share of white female workers
with some college also jumped, but less (from 62 percent to 75
percent), so the gap narrowed here as well. The share of young
Latina workers with college degrees increased from 11 percent
in 1980 to 13 percent in 1990. Although this increase occurred
at a faster rate than for white females (whose college graduation
rate went from 29 percent to 33 percent), the college graduate
gap between white female and Latina workers remained relatively

Because educational attainment is an important consideration in
employers' wage decisions for young workers, we would expect that
young white males, on average, would earn more than young black
males in 1995—but not as much more as they did in 1980. We would
also expect, based on this educational attainment data, that the
wages of young black female workers would be approaching the wages
of young white females; that the gap between young white female
and Latina workers would have significantly narrowed; and that
the wage gap between Latino and white males would remain basically
unchanged. In fact, however, wage disparities between whites and
minorities (both Latino and black) have grown at all levels of
educational attainment.


Perhaps the problem is the quality of schooling. Even though young
minority workers today have attended more school than in the past,
they may not be able to hold jobs because their academic achievement
did not improve commensurate with their level of schooling. The
evidence from test scores shows, however, that an overall narrowing
of the attainment gap has been matched by a corresponding narrowing
of the achievement gap.

Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores can be misinterpreted if
used to describe the overall quality of schooling because SAT
test takers are self-selected. Declining average SAT scores may
simply mean that a larger and less elite group of students chose
to take the test. But SAT trends can suggest how the academic
preparation of those who went to college compares from year to
year. If a growing proportion of a group such as black 17-year-olds
take the SAT test, the average black score might be expected to
decline because the average would reflect a larger (and thus less
elite) group of black students. If the average score rose despite
an expansion of the pool, the increase would be all the more impressive.

Between 1976 (the year SAT scores were first reported by race
and ethnicity) and 1987 (the most recent year in which the 25-year-old
college graduates whose wages we report would have taken the SAT
for college admission), the average verbal score was stable (456
to 453), as was the average math score (494 to 499), for California's
white students. For California's black students, however, average
verbal scores went from 331 to 359, while average math scores
went from 354 to 388. The number of black test takers rose from
5,800 in 1976 to 7,100 in 1987, while the number of all black
17-year-olds in California remained roughly the same. Thus, the
increase in average scores for black test takers almost certainly
represented genuine improvement. Similarly, average total SAT
scores for Mexican-American students rose from 772 to 793 during
a time when significant expansion of the Latino test-taking pool
also made an increase in average scores much more difficult to

Most minority students who did not go on to a four-year college
did not take the SAT test. They did, however, take the National
Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is given to a
representative sample of all 17-year-olds. NAEP scores represent
a range of reading abilities. For example, 200 reflects an ability
to make inferences based on uncomplicated passages; 250 reflects
an ability to reach generalizations from literature, science,
and social studies passages; 300 reflects an ability to summarize
and explain relatively complicated information.

Nationally, average NAEP reading scores of white 17-year-olds
went from 291 in 1971 to 295 in 1988. For blacks, the gain was
greater, from 239 in 1971 to 274 in 1988. For Latinos, the gain
was from an average of 252 in 1975 to 271 in 1988. Thus, while
average white scores remained higher in 1988, the average scores
of all three groups in 1988 reflected the ability to make inferences
and reach generalizations from passages dealing with literature,
science, and social studies.

In math, white NAEP scores were unchanged nationally, but black
and Latino scores increased substantially. In 1978, the average
black mathematics score was 37 percentile points lower than the
average white score. By 1990, the gap had been reduced to 21 points.
On the verbal test, the gap was reduced from 41 percentile points
to 24. All told, the gap between white and black NAEP scores was
reduced by about 40 percent from the 1970s to 1990. The white-Latino
gap was reduced from 31 percentile points to 27 points on the
math test, and from about 32 percentile points to about 17 points
on the verbal test.

Separate NAEP data are not available for race and ethnic score
trends in California, but we do know that western regional trends
were similar to the nation's. It is likely, therefore, that there
was relative improvement in achievement for California's minority
17-year-olds who did not go to college.


Once the education gap between minority and white workers narrows,
the wage gap should also narrow. But the gap in wages between
young white male workers and young black male workers has actually
widened. In California, young black male wages fell from 84 percent
of young white male wages in 1980 to 77 percent in 1995. Black
females earned about as much as white females in 1980 but only
86 percent as much in 1995.

Because minority test scores have improved relative to whites
among high-school educated workers and those with "some college,"
the wage gaps within these groups should have narrowed. But in
each case minority wages fell in California as a share of white
wages. For black males with high school education only, wages
fell from 82 percent of wages of similarly educated white workers,
to 79 percent. For those with "some college," the drop
was from 88 percent to 83 percent. And for college graduates,
the drop was from 94 percent to 86 percent.

For black females, relative wages also dropped. Whereas in 1979,
young working black females earned 6 percent more than young white
females with similar educational attainment, by 1989 their relative
wages had fallen to 4 percent below the white level. Young black
females with "some college" earned 4 percent more in
1979 but 6 percent less in 1989; and those with four-year college
degrees earned 6 percent more than comparable whites in 1979,
but 8 percent less in 1989. Young Latino workers also lost ground
to white workers at each of the comparable education levels, from
1979 to 1989.

Sample data from the Current Population Survey, although not strictly
comparable to census data, extends the picture closer to the present.
It shows that while the wage gap did stabilize for some education
groups between 1990 and 1995, it continued to widen for others.
Nowhere did it narrow, despite continued narrowing of the educational
attainment and achievement gaps. For example, California's young
black males with only high school education saw relative wages
fall from 84 percent of comparably educated young whites' wages
in 1990 to 74 percent in 1995. Relative wages also fell for black
females with "some college" and for Latina females at
all levels of educational attainment.

While no single statistic proves the case, the broad trends are
remarkably consistent: Educational attainment and achievement
of minority 17-year-olds, relative to comparable whites, improved
steadily—and in some cases dramatically—from the mid-1970s to
the late 1980s, yet wages did not. There may be other—or better—solutions
than affirmative action, but affirmative action is one way to
push wages in the direction of being more consistently and rationally
related to workers' qualifications. Unfortunately, the vote in
California was not designed to substitute a better remedy, but
no remedy at all.

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