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HBCU Chiefs Address Grad Rates

December 15, 2009

Under renewed scrutiny about lackluster graduation rates, a group of historically black college presidents is pushing for new assessment tools they say will better capture student outcomes.

While details remain sparse, a report to be published Wednesday by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund suggests that the six-year graduation rate as measured by federal data should be replaced with a new model. Echoing complaints often registered by community college leaders, the report, “Making the Grade: Improving Degree Attainment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs),” argues that federal data fail to capture the successes of transfer students and part-time students who often attend the institutions. Moreover, the data fail to account for the fact that many HBCU students face additional barriers to success, including lower socioeconomic status and the need for remediation, the report notes.

HBCUs have a history of serving underserved and nontraditional students, which places the institutions at a disadvantage when compared to other colleges under the six-year graduation rate standard, according to Mary Sias, president of Kentucky State University and a co-author of the report.

“You’re not comparing apples to apples,” Sias said on a conference call Monday. “If you gave me the same students, I would be able to do as well or better than the other universities that are majority-serving institutions.”

Nonetheless, the six-year graduation rate has emerged as the federal standard for comparing very different institutions. And when viewed through that lens, HBCUs often don’t appear to be doing well. When the Associated Press analyzed the six-year graduation rates of 83 four-year HBCUs earlier this year, it found that just 37 percent of black students finished within six years. While HBCUs have long touted their special role in educating African Americans, the report noted that the collective graduation rate for black students at HBCUs is actually 4 percentage points lower than the national college graduation rate for black students.

The Thurgood Marshall College Fund report does not introduce a new metric for assessment, but it suggests that any new yardstick should find a way to factor in the percentage of Pell Grant eligible students attending an institution, while also accounting for lower incoming standardized test scores that may indicate barriers to graduation.

“I don’t think a six year graduation rate is really giving us the full picture,” said Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the report.

Indeed, the current metrics do not illustrate that HBCUs often do a comparatively good job serving students of modest means, even though majority serving institutions have higher graduation rates overall, Gasman said. Take Alcorn State University, a historically black institution in Mississippi where 79 percent of students are Pell Grant eligible and the median SAT score is 910. While it’s true that Alcorn’s graduation rate of 43 percent is 10 percentage points lower than that of the University of Mississippi, it’s also true that just 24 percent of Ole Miss students are Pell eligible and that the median SAT score there is 1,065 -- 155 points higher. By failing to account for the differences in the students these institutions serve, federal data give an incomplete picture, Gasman said.

Some of the data that Gasman and others would like to see more widely used is collected already by the Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads, whose Access to Success Initiative illustrates the successes -- and failures -- college systems have in graduating and enrolling low-income students.

The push from HBCU presidents for different assessment tools comes at a time when some express concern about the future of these institutions. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's recent call to merge the state’s three public historically black colleges, for instance, was viewed by many as a threat to the state’s HBCUs.

Asked about perceived threats to the future of HBCUs, Sias stressed their important role in higher education.

“I don’t even consider that we need to put historically black colleges by the side of the road,” she said. “They are needed, and needed more than ever.”

Other co-authors to the report included Dwayne Ashley, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund; Ronald Mason, president of Jackson State University; and George Wright, president of Prairie View A&M University.

 

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