Defining the middle-class has never been an easy task for social scientists. Over the years, scholars have used education, occupation, income, and home ownership as the primary measures of socioeconomic stratification. The advances in African Americans' educational attainment levels since World War II have been significant. In 1940, the vast majority of blacks (92.3%) had completed less than 4 years of high school. Only 6.4% had completed high school and 1.3% of the black population had completed four or more years of college. As shown in Graph 1, by 1970, the proportion of blacks 25 years and older with less than 12 years of school had declined by 26%.

Graph 1

Educational Attainment Levels of Blacks 25 Years and Older: 1970-2010


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, % of People 25 Years and Over Who Have Completed High School or College, by Race, Hispanic Origin and Sex: Selected Years 1940 to 2010, tbl. A-2 (2010), http:// www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/historical/index.html.

By 2010, the percentage of blacks (25 years and older) with less than 12 years of school had declined to 15.8% from a high of 66.3% in 1970. It is not surprising that the decades with the largest decline in the proportion of blacks with less than 12 years of school were the 1970s (dropping by 17.5%) followed by the 1980s (declining by 15%). The 20 year decline between 1970 and 1990 was 32.5% compared to only 18% between 1990 and 2010. Despite the decline, in 2010, the percentage of blacks with less than 12 years of school was still relatively high at 15.8% when compared to 7.9% for non-Hispanic whites. The proportion of blacks in the moderate education group (4 years of high school and some college) rose from 29.2% in 1970 to 64.4% in 2010. The largest increase in this group occurred between 1970 and 1995, increasing by 31.4 percentage points. Since 1995, the proportion of blacks with 4 years of high school and some college has increased by only 3.8%.

Among black high school graduates in 1970, only 4.5% had 16 or more years of education. However, during the 1970s, many young African Americans took advantage of new opportunities consisting of governmental grants, low-interest education loans, and increased scholarship opportunities from institutions of higher learning, anxious to recruit black students. By 1980, the proportion of college educated African Americans had increased to 7.9%. During the 1980s, the growth in the proportion of the black population with 16 or more years of education equaled the advances that occurred of 3.4% during the 1970s. By 1990, the proportion of blacks with 16 or more years of schooling had increased to 11.3%. The largest increase in the proportion of blacks with 4 or more years of college occurred during the 1990s when the proportion of blacks with 16 or more years of education grew by 5.3 percentage points to 16.5%. Although the proportion of black college graduates continued to increase during the 2000s, the growth rate of 3.3% was slightly lower than it was in earlier decades.

Despite what appears to be a leveling off of blacks' educational attainment during the 2000s, there are two things worth noting. First, blacks experienced a significant increase in their educational attainment levels during the 40-year period between 1970 and 2010. This is especially significant since educational attainment is a key contributor to the rise in and indicator of the size of new black middle-class. Second, despite improvements in blacks' educational attainment, they still lagged behind whites. For example, in 2010, the gap between black and white college graduates was 13.4%.