WASHINGTON - New census figures offer dramatic evidence of education's big payback: Income for African-Americans with a four-year college degree has increased so much since the civil rights advances of the 1960s that we have almost closed our historical income gap with four-year, college-educated whites.
In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, blacks with a bachelor's degree had a median income of $36,694, which is almost as high as the $38,667 median income of whites with a bachelor's degree.
Black female graduates have closed the gap much more effectively than their black male counterparts, and the gap between the races seems to be easier to explain than the gap between the sexes.
The median income of black males with a bachelor's degree was $41,916, almost 20 percent lower than the $51,138 median income of similarly educated white males. Similarly educated black women had a median income of $33,142, which was lower than black male graduates, but about 10 percent higher than the $30,082 median income figure for similarly degreed white women.
White women's income appears to be lower than that of black women partly because college-educated black women are less likely to leave their careers in order to raise children, according to Census Bureau surveys.
And the gap between white and black males is partly explained by the likelihood that white professionals still tend to service clients and markets that are economically better off than those served by many black professionals.
Nevertheless, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education observed, "This is not to discount the value of a college degree for black men. African-American men with a bachelor's degree or higher still earn on average nearly double the income of black men with a high school diploma."
In fact, the census found, blacks with a doctorate are beginning to show higher incomes on average than similarly educated whites.
Harder to explain than the race gap is the gap between the sexes within each race, partly because it has not gotten as much attention until recent years.
Since 1975, the overall number of male students in college has remained relatively steady while the number of women ballooned from 5 million in 1975 to 8 million in 1997, according to the American Council on Education.
The biggest disparity showed up in families making under $30,000 a year: Women made up 68 percent of those families' college enrollees, outnumbering the guys by more than 2-to-1.
For black families during that same period, bachelor's degrees awarded to black men increased by 30 percent and to black women by 77 percent. Today, black women enrolled at some historically black campuses outnumber men by 2-to-1.
Some observers say the gender gap is explained, at least in part, by the wider options high-school-educated men may have compared with similarly educated women. Unfortunately, the only option being exercised by far too many young black males is jail - if they're not killed first.
Black males born today have a one-in-three chance of going to prison during their lifetime, compared with a one-in-17 chance for white males, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based prison research organization.
The result has only widened the gender gap among successful blacks. Young black men, for many reasons, have not valued education as much as black women. No one is better suited to rectify that horrible situation than older black men.
In the decade since the Million Man March stepped into Washington, numerous black male organizations have emerged in churches and neighborhoods to take our young men and boys under wing and show the value of education as a key to success. We need more to join in.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.