updated 3/28/2005 12:04:18 AM ET 2005-03-28T05:04:18

Black and Asian women with bachelor’s degrees earn slightly more than similarly educated white women, and white men with four-year degrees make more than anyone else.

A white woman with a bachelor’s degree typically earned nearly $37,800 in 2003, compared with nearly $43,700 for a college-educated Asian woman and $41,100 for a college-educated black woman, according to data being released Monday by the Census Bureau. Hispanic women took home slightly less at $37,600 a year.

The bureau did not say why the differences exist. Economists and sociologists suggest possible factors: the tendency of minority women, especially blacks, to more often hold more than one job or work more than 40 hours a week, and the tendency of black professional women who take time off to have a child to return to the work force sooner than others.

Employers in some fields may give extra financial incentives to young black women, who graduate from college at higher rates than young black men, said Roderick Harrison, a researcher at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that studies minority issues.

“Given the relative scarcity, if you are a woman in the sciences — if you are a black woman — you would be a rare commodity,” Harrison said.

Specific reasons unclear
Because study in the area is limited, it is hard to pinpoint specific reasons, said Barbara Gault, research director at the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“It could be the fields that educated black women are choosing,” she said. “It also could be related to the important role that black women play in the total family income in African-American families.

Notions that black women are struggling financially as much other groups are should not be dismissed, Gault added.

For instance, nearly 39 percent of families headed by a single black woman were in poverty, compared with 21 percent of comparable white women, according to census estimates released last year.

A white male with a college diploma earns far more than any similarly educated man or woman — in excess of $66,000 a year, according to the Census Bureau. Among men with bachelor’s degrees, Asians earned more than $52,000 a year, Hispanics earned $49,000 and blacks earned more than $45,000.

Minorities affected by range of events
Workplace discrimination and the continuing difficulties of minorities to get into higher-paying management positions could help explain the disparities among men, experts say.

Demographics may offer an explanation: There are millions more college-educated white men in better paying jobs than there are black, Hispanic or Asian men.

Minorities also suffered more financially as a result of the 2001 recession and its aftermath, as has been the case with past economic downturns, said Jared Bernstein, chief economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

The figures come from the Census Bureau’s annual look at educational achievement in America, culled from a survey in March 2004. Questions about income were asked for the previous calendar year.

Regardless of race or gender, a college graduate on average earned over $51,000, compared with $28,000 for someone with only a high school diploma or an equivalent degree. College-educated men typically made $63,000, compared with $33,000 for men with just a high school education.

Among women, a college graduate earned more than $38,000, compared with nearly $22,000 for a high school graduate.

The data also showed that:

  • The percentage of people age 25 and older who completed at least four years of college rose again in 2004, to 27.7 percent, compared with 27.2 percent in 2003. There were increases in all race and ethnic categories.
  • About 29 percent of all men in the same age category finished four years of college, compared with 26 percent of women.
  • The gap between men and women has narrowed since the 1970s as younger, more educated women steadily replace older, less-educated women in the work force. For example, among 25- to 29-year-olds, more than 31 percent of women have finished at least four years of college, compared with 26 percent of men.

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