'Gaps Are Not Inevitable'

It's well-established by now that African American and Latino students graduate college at lower rates than do their white and Asian peers, so it follows pretty naturally that many individual colleges would have lower graduation rates for those groups than for white students, too.

August 10, 2010
 

It's well-established by now that African American and Latino students graduate college at lower rates than do their white and Asian peers, so it follows pretty naturally that many individual colleges would have lower graduation rates for those groups than for white students, too.

But in two new reports that the Education Trust released Monday, the advocacy group tries to hammer home the idea that big gaps in the academic performance of minority and white students are not an inevitability. It does so, starkly, by using its College Results Online database to compare the graduation rates of black and Latino students with their white peers at individual institutions, showing widely varying outcomes at colleges and universities with comparably prepared and composed student bodies.

The University of California at Riverside has about 14,700 students, about 25 percent of whom are Hispanic, and an average SAT score of 1040; about 12 percent of California State University at Chico's 14,600 students are Latino, and the institution's average SAT is 1025. Yet Latino students who entered Riverside from 2000 to 2002 graduated at a rate of 63.4 percent over six years, 1 percentage point better than its white students, while 41.5 percent of Chico's Hispanic students do, compared to 57.5 percent of white students there.

Similar gaps exist at more selective public institutions (the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's 2 percentage point graduation rate gap between its Hispanic and white students, compared to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's 16 percent, for example) and all manner of private institutions, too (Rice University's black and white students both graduate at a rate of about 92 percent, while black students at Lehigh University graduate at a six-year rate of 64.5 percent, compared to 86.3 percent for white students).

While some college officials complain that the Education Trust appears to relish pointing out flaws in American higher education, officials at the group said these reports, like their others, are designed not to embarrass (or at least not only to embarrass) but to make the point that no institution is predestined to have different success for different groups.

"We did uncover some large gaps in student success rates and low graduation rates for students of color. But it would be wrong to assume that these gaps are inevitable or immutable,” Mamie Lynch, a policy analyst at the Education Trust and co-author of the report, said in a news release. “For many of the ‘big gap’ schools, we can point to an institution working with a similar student body that graduates students of color at rates similar to those of white students.”

That is certainly true, and many of the colleges and universities with small or no gaps have instituted policies, programs and other practices specifically to strengthen the academic success of underrepresented students.

But many of the top-performing institutions cited by Education Trust have also been at it a long time: Cynthia Wolf Johnson, associate provost for academic services at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said in an interview Monday that her institution's summer bridge program just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and that its Student Advising for Freshman Excellence program, which provides intensive advising and support for between a third and half of first-year students, has been around for nearly two decades. That "longstanding commitment to retention and graduation of minority students" has resulted in a black student graduation that mirrors white students' six-year rate of 50.1 percent. (Rates are significantly higher for participants in the university's bridge and advising programs.)

Salvadore A. Liberto, vice president for enrollment management and associate provost at Loyola University New Orleans, said his institution, too, has all the programs and "best practices" that admissions and retention experts agree greatly increase students' chances of academic success: transition programs for at-risk students, "early warning" systems that alert officials to struggling students, and the like.

But while Loyola certainly works hard to ensure the academic success of its students, it benefits enormously from the fact that, given its regional orientation and history as a Jesuit institution, "we take diversity for granted in the very best way that you can," said Liberto. Without purposefully aggressive recruiting, about a third of its students are members of underrepresented minority groups, and because the university has over time "provided a great deal of support for students who fall into any kind of at-risk categories," it has produced many successful students of all races, Liberto said.

As a result, "when students get to campus, there isn't this culture shock" that minority students at many colleges with smaller cohorts of such students face, he said. Black (65.2 percent) and Latino students (66.0 percent) alike at Loyola graduate at slightly higher rates than do white students (63.2 percent).

The story is similar at George Mason University, which has "many of the interventions and support systems that have proven to be most effective at institutions nationwide" -- learning communities, intensive tutoring, etc., said Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions and enrollment development there. But what most distinguishes the Virginia public university -- but is "virtually impossible to replicate" -- is that it is "intensely globally diverse," such that "nearly every student who comes is going to find a cohort of students that they can see themselves fitting into."

The fact that minority students feel such comfort at Mason, he said, contributes mightily to the statistics showing that black students graduate at a rate 6 percentage points higher than do white students (62.6 percent to 56.8 percent); 58.5 percent of Hispanic students graduate within six years, too.

"I have enormous luxury in my role compared to most of my peers nationwide," Flagel said.

Officials at many of the colleges that show up on Education Trust's list of institutions with big gaps in minority graduation rates know that lacking the historical advantages of colleges like George Mason and Loyola doesn't earn them a pass. It'd be easy for Wayne State University to try to blame the Detroit public schools for the poor academic preparation of so many of its students, and in turn for the 34 percentage point gap between its graduation rates for white (43.5 percent) and black (9.5 percent) students in 2008, said Howard N. Shapiro, associate vice president for student services and undergraduate affairs and a professor of mechanical engineering there.

"But I don't want to whine about that and say it's not our problem. This is the hand we're dealt, and something we need to change," he said.

Two years ago, Wayne State implemented the kind of learning community approach that many colleges have embraced, and strengthened its need-based aid program to try to eliminate the financial reasons that might lead many academically undeprepared students to drop out, Shapiro said. The first-to-second-year retention rate for black students rose to 69.6 percent from 56.8 percent from 2007 to 2008, and when the figures for 2009 become available in a month, Shapiro hopes they will show additional progress.

While it will take time for that momentum to affect the six-year graduation rate, the retention rates at the five- and six-semester marks have also turned up, he said.

California State University at Chico also shows up on Education Trust's list of institutions with large graduation rate gaps for black and Latino students as compared to white students -- but those figures fail to capture the progress the university has already made, said Meredith Kelley, vice provost for enrollment management there. The Education Trust report shows the university's six-year graduation rate for the three classes that entered in 2000-2 to be 30.8 percent for African-American students and 41.5 percent for Latino students, compared to 57.5 percent for white students.

Several years after it expanded a minority student success center in its business school to the entire campus and created a Cross-Cultural Leadership Center, Chico has pushed its six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students to 49 percent in 2008 from 39 percent in 2006, and for black students to 51 percent from 31 percent, Kelley said.

More changes are on the way. Like other institutions in the California State University System, which has joined the Access to Success effort sponsored by Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads, Chico has committed to halving its graduation rate gaps for minority and low-income students. As part of that effort, Kelley said, the university is putting in place the sort of academic early warning system that Loyola and many of the other colleges on Education Trust's "small gap" list use.

"We obviously still have a lot of work to do," she said, "but we're showing that we can make progress if we focus intensely on this."

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