Around this time of year, colleges regularly issue press releases boasting about the percentages of minority students they have admitted this year or that will enroll in the fall. But what happens after they enroll?
A report being released today by Education Sector suggests that, at many campuses, the gap in the graduation rates of black and white students is embarrassingly large, raising questions about the experience of black students once enrolled. The report finds that some institutions -- including those outside the elite ranks of private higher education -- have strategies that result in black students graduating at relatively similar rates to white students, while other institutions appear to accept gaps of 25 percentage points or more in the rates.
The new report, "Graduation Rate Watch: Making Minority Student Success a Priority," is largely based on data that colleges are required to report on graduation rates, broken down by race, under the Student Right-to-Know Act, which was enacted in 1990 with a major of drawing attention to the historically low graduation rates of athletes. While that was the goal, the law required colleges to report graduation rates on all students, for comparison purposes, making possible the kind of analysis Education Sector has done.
Nationally, about 57 percent of students at four-year institutions graduate within six years -- with some private colleges reporting rates well above 90 percent year after year while others have rates that are quite low. Black students disproportionately attend colleges with low graduation rates for black students. Only about 30 percent attend colleges with six-year graduation rates of 50 percent or higher. About 50 percent of black students attend colleges with six-year graduation rates for black students that are less than 40 percent.
Or as the report puts it in another way, black students are two-and-a-half times more likely to enroll at a college where they have a 70 percent chance of not graduating than at a college where they have a 70 percent chance of graduating.
"College opportunity for minority students doesn't end with the admissions process," said Kevin Carey, author of the report and the research and policy manager at Education Sector. Colleges, he said, "have an obligation to give support" to the students they admit. If they admit black (or other) students with poor academic preparation, "and if you do nothing," the graduation rates will differ by race. But he said that if you do offer additional help, students can succeed.
The report contrasts those colleges with graduation rates that are similar for black and white students with those that have large gaps in their rates.
At 17 colleges, the report notes black-white graduation rate gaps of 35 percentage points or more, for students who enrolled in 2000. (Rounding in some cases makes the points appear off by one.)
Colleges With Large Black/White 6-Year Graduation Rate Gaps
|College||Black Students' Rate||White Students' Rate||Gap in Percentage Points||% of Black Students at the Institution|
|Catholic U. of America||25%||72%||47 points||6%|
|Saint Thomas U. (Fla.)||25%||69%||44 points||24%|
|College of Mount St. Joseph||21%||65%||44 points||10%|
|Gwynedd-Mercy College||38%||79%||41 points||15%|
|East-West U.||10%||50%||40 points||69%|
|Baker U.||25%||64%||39 points||7%|
|Olivet Nazarene U.||17%||56%||38 points||9%|
|Friends U.||11%||48%||38 points||11%|
|Rowan U.||36%||73%||37 points||9%|
|McKendree College||57%||20%||37 points||14%|
|Savannah College of Art and Design||38%||74%||36 points||6%|
|U. of St. Francis||27%||63%||36 points||7%|
|Concordia U. (Ill.)||23%||59%||36 points||14%|
|Bloomsburg U. of Pennsylvania||31%||65%||35 points||6%|
|Wayne State U.||10%||45%||35 points||26%|
|Lewis U.||24%||59%||35 points||12%|
|Southern Nazarene U.||14%||50%||35 points||11%|
The colleges with very large gaps included public and private, and a mix of institutions in rural and urban areas. While not making this list, many other prominent universities with significant minority enrollments -- and including institutions that have stressed the importance of diversity -- also have large gaps in black-white graduation rates. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor has a gap of 19 percent, Indiana University at Bloomington has a gap of 22 percent, Michigan State University has a gap of 24 percent, and the University of Cincinnati has a gap of 24 percent.
Colleges with very small black enrollments were not included. The study briefly explores trends in graduation rates at historically black colleges, where average rates for all institutions are low, but where there is a split between institutions with competitive admissions (which tend to have high rates) and other institutions, which tend to have low rates. The report also notes that historically black colleges enroll "a disproportionately large share of first-generation and low-income students, who tend to be at a higher risk of dropping out."
The report also acknowledges flaws in the six-year graduation rate (the measure used by the federal government), and notes that at some institutions, where many students stop and start their educations, a longer rate may be appropriate. Likewise the report notes widely discussed problems with using graduation rates to compare institutions, which may have radically different missions, student bodies, and educational programs. But the report argues that "disparities within institutions" are legitimate to explore.
Officials at some of the universities that the report found to have large gaps said efforts were already taking place to narrow those gaps. James Mackin, provost at Bloomsburg, said that his institution did have a problem in the past, but that the strengthening of programs to help students improve their academic skills were already having an impact. Year-to-year retention rates have become similar for black and white students, he said, so he expects to see a narrowing of the gap in graduation rates too.
W. Michael Hendricks, vice president for enrollment management at Catholic, warned against reading too much into any one year's data, since figures fluctuate from the "snapshot in time" of any year's statistics. He said Catholic was reporting figures for the year after the cohort studied by Education Sector that show a gap of only six percentage points, with the black rate more than doubling from the year highlighted in the report. Hendricks called the 25 percent black graduation rate an "anomaly," but acknowledged that it was "woefully low," adding that the university expects to see improvements "because we are committed to providing students the programs and services they need to be successful."
Carey, the report's author, said he would be pleased to see improvements at any of the institutions identified as having large gaps in his report. While there are shifts from year to year, he said, he hoped any college with a large gap -- for even one year -- would consider why such a disparity existed, and what could be done about it. And he said that institutions with large gaps, and subsequent improvements, needed to make sure those improvements were "sustained over time."
Not surprisingly, the report finds that some elite colleges -- with very competitive admissions for all students -- have hardly any gaps at all. But the report draws attention to institutions that do not either have billions in their endowments or sit atop the rankings that nonetheless have small or no gaps in the graduation rates of black and white students. At Florida State University, for example, the report notes that the black graduation rate tops the white graduation rate, 72 percent to 69 percent. The same is true at the College of Charleston; George Mason, Towson and Winthrop Universities; the State University of New York campuses at Albany and Stony Brook; and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa -- all of which also have black graduation rates of at least 60 percent.
"If there is a single factor that seems to distinguish colleges and universities that have truly made a difference on behalf of minority students, it is attention," the report says. "Successful colleges pay attention to graduation rates. They monitor year-to-year change, study the impact of different interventions on student outcomes, break down the numbers among different student populations, and continuously ask themselves how they could improve."
As an example of an effective intervention program, the report points to Florida State University's Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement. The program, known as CARE, sponsors outreach to disadvantaged students (based on socioeconomic status, not race, but two-thirds of whom tend to be black) in middle and high school. Then the program helps them through the admissions process, even if they are not at equivalent preparation of other applicants -- but conditioned on the applicants' agreement to participate in a summer program before the start of freshman year, and subsequent academic training activities for the first two years they are enrolled. The program also provides funds to offer extra sections of freshman math courses, with smaller class size and daily meeting times. While CARE students aren't required to enroll in those sections and they aren't limited to CARE students, many opt to do so, and on average perform better when they do so.
The Education Sector offers a range of possible steps that might have a national impact on closing the gaps in graduation rates of black and white students:
- Changing rankings formulas. The report notes that the second most significant factor in U.S. News & World Report's rankings -- counting for 16 percent of total scores -- is the six-year graduation rate. But the report notes that because there is no accounting for subgroup rates, an institution like Indiana University (72 percent rate overall, with large black-white gap) is judged to be better than Florida State (68 percent over all, without a black-white gap), and questions whether this is fair. While U.S. News, in some of its rankings, also gives points for "predicted graduation rate" (a category that rewards colleges that have higher than expected graduation rates for the socioeconomic range of students enrolled), the report notes that this is weighted with much more influence and isn't even used in all rankings.
- Improve graduation rate measures. The report notes a range of frustrations with graduation rate calculations required by the federal government, and suggests that fixing these problems would make more colleges pay attention to the rates -- and racial gaps in them.
- Change state funding formulas and accountability systems. Many state appropriations formulas are enrollment-based, the report notes, and while this would seem an incentive to focus on retention, that isn't always the case. Because effective strategies to improve poorly prepared students' academic performance are expensive, state formulas and accountability systems need to place more of an emphasis on retention and graduation of all student groups.
- Improve accreditation standards. The report notes that accreditors stress the ability of review teams to evaluate colleges based on their missions and circumstances, and praises this approach. "Nobody expects open access institutions to match graduation rates in the Ivy League," it says. But the report goes on to note that among institutions with similar financial resources and similar student bodies, graduation rates for black students and the black-white gap vary widely, suggesting that some institutions should be held accountable for low rates. "And the fact that some accredited colleges and universities have minority graduation rates in the single digits suggests that there is literally no amount of persistent graduation rate failure that can put an institution's accreditation at serious risk," the report says.
One issue that is not mentioned in the report, but that its author acknowledges will surely come up in discussion of it, is affirmative action. Ward Connerly and other prominent critics of affirmative action have frequently cited low graduation rates of minority students as evidence that some are being admitted to institutions where they may not succeed -- and they have argued that these students would benefit from attending institutions where their academic preparation is aligned with student expectations.
Carey strongly disputes that approach and said he thinks the findings in his report show the opposite. If Florida State and other institutions are able to admit significant numbers of black students -- many of them coming from poor high schools -- and graduate them at high rates, that suggests that fault at institutions with low rates may rest with the institutions, not the students. "I don't think it's a race issue," he said, but a question of institutional commitment to helping the students who are admitted.
"Colleges admit students with a diverse range of academic backgrounds for a lot of good reasons," he said. "But they have an obligation to give them support." He added that many studies show white male students are not doing as well as while female students "and no one suggests that we stop admitting white males."