Many colleges and universities place a premium on enrolling a racially diverse student body. But at most of these schools, their graduates might not be as varied as the students who entered as freshmen. Only about 40 percent of underrepresented minority students — blacks, Latinos, and American Indians — graduate from college within six years; the same statistic for nonminorities is 60 percent.
Experts say that much of the disparity in graduation rates can be attributed to the different economic backgrounds students bring when they enter college, a criterion in which minorities tend to be disadvantaged. This relationship between economic background and graduation rates is particularly significant for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which generally enroll more students with limited financial resources. The six-year graduation rates at even the top three black colleges as ranked by U.S. News are 78 percent (Spelman College), 69 percent (Howard University), and 61 percent (Morehouse College), according to 2007 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. For comparison, the graduation rate for U.S. News’s top three National Universities are 98 percent (Harvard), 96 percent (Princeton), and 97 percent (Yale). At many HBCUs, the graduation rate hovers in the range of 30 to 40 percent. But many HBCUs are striving to ensure that more students of color earn a degree. "There are many systemic institutional programs and solutions that are beginning to address this," says Alvin Thornton, interim provost and chief academic officer at Howard University in the District of Columbia.
Delaware State University in Dover is one HBCU that has made consistent progress improving its graduation rate. In 2002, just 29 percent of its black students graduated within six years, but by 2007, that figure had risen to 38 percent. The pivotal moment came in 2005 when administrators developed a comprehensive retention program that identified the challenges most often experienced by entering freshmen and overhauled the school’s yearlong freshmen success course.
Phyllis Collins, the school’s director of academic enrichment, says the tools and information students receive in this course and its activities ease students’ transition into college life and help keep them in school after what is usually a challenging first year. Shakima Kelly, a junior at DSU, agrees. "The academic programs definitely help in guiding students along all the way to graduation," she says.
At other black colleges, administrators say that cultivating high retention and graduation rates depends considerably upon the admissions selectivity of the college and the socioeconomic profile of the student. "Those are essential predictors of eventual graduation rates," says Howard’s Thornton. For example, the average student who enrolls at Howard University—which has a relatively low acceptance rate of 49 percent and a student body that is 66 percent black—scores above the national average on the SAT and possesses a strong record of high school success. Thornton says the school’s efforts to recruit more of these students and allocate resources to offer attractive scholarships was what helped Howard raise its graduation rate for black students from 56 percent in 2002 to 69 percent in 2007.
Money, of course, is a major issue. Debt can hurt a student’s ability to pay for and remain in school, Thornton says, and that holds true especially at HBCUs. "After sophomore year, making up that difference after institutional aid and federal Pell grants can become unbearable," he says. A 2004 study conducted by the federal Education Department found that 31 percent of postsecondary students who leave school without completing a degree cited financial reasons.
At Delaware State, Kelly says the double whammy of having responsibilities such as jobs and taking care of, say, a single-parent family can make it difficult for all students—even the ones getting straight A’s—to stay in school. "Some students don’t have the resources to just focus on academics," she says. Ebony Harris, a sophomore at DSU, says she knows students who wanted to come back to school after freshman year but couldn’t because of financial difficulties.
At Arkansas Baptist College, an open-admissions HBCU of just 700 students in Little Rock, Vice President of Academic Affairs Robert Houston says the six-year graduation rate is only 26 percent, which represents a step forward for the school. But this liberal arts college has increased its student body—its enrollment was a mere 150 just three years ago—and officials attribute the boom to an improving academic reputation, new facilities construction, and an increasing number of athletic programs. "A lot of students want to eventually become involved with [NCAA] Division 1 institutions," says Houston. He says that rising enrollment has helped boost the graduation rate.
But it’s not just the HBCUs that are working hard to improve the graduation rates for blacks and other minority students. Georgia State University, a research university in downtown Atlanta, increased its percentage of minority students graduating in six years from about 32 percent in 2002 to more than 50 percent in 2007, which is almost 5 percentage points higher than the school’s nonminority graduation rate. Associate Provost Tim Renick says the gains came from using student performance data to identify potholes on the path to obtaining a bachelor’s degree, such as high failure rates in introductory courses and the dropout rate between the sophomore and junior years.
GSU took a campuswide approach to improving graduation rates for all its students—in 2002, its overall six-year graduation rate was 32 percent—but administrators found that their programs were particularly effective for minority students. A combination of in-class academic advising, peer tutoring, and first-year learning communities—where faculty members taught multiple courses and served as advisers to the same group of students—helped to increase retention rates between freshman and sophomore years by about 6 percentage points. Those rates rose by 10 to 12 percentage points for minority students. The majority of GSU students are first-generation college students, and Renick says GSU’s approach might have a greater effect on those students than on students who are more familiar with the college experience.
"Georgia State’s example demonstrates that institutions can strive for access and success simultaneously," says Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at the nonprofit group Education Trust, which recently released two studies on minority achievement and graduation rates. "Schools should see these as twin goals, not an either-or proposition."