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Graduation rates have been steadily improving at universities for about a decade now.

But a report released today by the Education Trust shows that at some public institutions, the gap in graduation rates between minority students and white students is actually growing. The Education Trust is an advocacy group for low-income and minority students.

At 26 institutions, the researchers found, the completion rate increased more for minority students than for white students from 2003 to 2013, resulting in a narrowing of the racial gap. At 17 colleges, by contrast, graduation rates for students of color declined and gaps between white students and minorities on their campuses grew. The Education Trust focused its analysis on 328 public institutions where overall graduation rates increased, and specifically on a group of 255 universities within that pool that had at least 50 minority and 50 white students in their graduation cohorts.

"We caution institutional leaders who celebrate their graduation rate gains to take a good look at their data and ask whether they are doing enough to get more African-American, Latino and Native students to graduation and to close completion gaps," said Kimberlee Eberle-Sudre, a policy analyst at Ed Trust and co-author of the report, in the news release.

Over all, the report found that two-thirds of four-year institutions have increased graduation rates from 2003 to 2013. Of the 255 institutions that serve a sizable minority population, 77 percent increased graduation rates for their minority students. But the minority graduation rates increased only slightly more than for white students -- 6.3 percentage points compared to 5.7 percent. So the completion gap between white and minority students has narrowed by less than 1 percentage point in 10 years, according to the report.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga topped the list of the 17 institutions that had the widest completion gaps, though its overall graduation rate increased. The Education Trust, using U.S. Department of Education data, found that the completion gap between white and minority students there increased 18.7 percentage points between 2003 and 2013. Minority graduation at the university fell by 11.9 percentage points, but overall graduation increased by 2 percentage points. The overall rate was boosted by an increase in success for white students -- by 6.8 percentage points.

Four-Year Public Institutions With Increasing Gaps
Institution 10-Year Change in Minority Grad Rates 10-Year Change in Overall Grad Rates 10-Year Change in White Student Grad Rates 10-Year Change in Completion Gap
U of Tennessee at Chattanooga -11.9% 2% 6.8% 18.7%
Texas A&M U-Commerce -7.1% 4% 10.1% 17.2%
U of Missouri-Kansas City -6% 3.6% 9.4% 15.3%
U of Central Arkansas -9.5% 1.5% 4.3% 13.8%
Auburn U at Montgomery -7.2% 1% 5.7% 13%
Kutztown U of Pennsylvania -3.6% 4.6% 7.2% 10.8%
Auburn U -5.4% 2.8% 5.1% 10.4%
U of Alabama in Huntsville -5.7% 3.1% 4.6% 10.3%
U of Southern Mississippi -5.5% 0.5% 4.4% 9.9%
Weber State U -6.4% 1.9% 3.5% 9.9%

The university has seen an increase in retention among its minority students more recently, said Chuck Cantrell, associate vice chancellor of communication and marketing for UT-Chattanooga.

"We're focusing on all students' success and we recognize the need to address the needs of students in certain multiracial and multicultural populations," he said. "We have implemented a couple of programs that although they serve all students, the participation rates tend to be minority students."

According to UT-Chattanooga's retention data, retention of first-time, full-time black students increased from 70 to 80 percent, in 2015. That increase is higher than the 1 percent increase in retention among white students from 70 percent last year.

Cantrell said within the last two years the university established a summer bridge program to better prepare high school students for college-level math and writing, and a minority mentorship program. That mentor program matches upperclassmen with underclassmen to help minority students feel more engaged on campus.

The University of Montana -- the only flagship to make the list of 17 -- had a decrease of 3.5 percentage points in its minority graduation rate and an increase in the completion gap of 8 percentage points.

The minority population at Montana is substantially Native Americans, who account for about 800 of the approximately 13,000 students on the campus, said Perry Brown, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the university.

Brown said the university has been working to increase retention and graduation rates for Native students, although he added that he couldn't speak to why there were declines in the minority rates. Last year, the university renewed its participation in the federal TRIO program, a slate of initiatives and projects that help low-income, first-generation and minority students to succeed in college.

For years the university has had Native American advising offices at the college level to help students. Brown points to the College of Forestry and Conservation, where a Native American advising office was installed about 10 years ago and the retention rate increased from about 10 percent to 80 percent in that time, he said, adding that the number of graduates also increased from about one or two students a year to about eight a year.

Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics for Education Trust, said the group's findings don't suggest that the 17 universities where the completion gap is growing aren't committed to diversity or focused on advising or increasing aid to low-income students.

"But it does seem what they are doing isn't necessarily working," he said.

Leading the 26 universities that have narrowed the completion gap between white and minority students was the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, which has closed the gap by 15.2 percentage points due to the institution's efforts to increase freshman retention.

Each university is different, but the researchers identified some explanations for why some universities were better than others at closing the completion gap and increasing both minority and white graduation rates.

"It usually comes down to a couple of specific things, and one of the most important is leadership and having folks on campus who take these issues seriously and recognize there must be targeted intervention for students of color," Nichols said. "Another is financial aid. So ensuring low-income students and students with the least ability to pay have the ability to pay not just in their first year, but so they can return to college year after year."

Washington State University, which saw the minority graduation rate increase by 13 percentage points over 10 years and the completion gap narrow by 5.4 percentage points, credited the institution's first black president, Elson Floyd, with leading the initiative to increase diversity on the campus. Floyd served as president from 2007 until his death in June.

North Carolina State University had a 12 percentage point increase in the minority graduation rate and closed the completion gap by 4.8 percent. Administrators there attributed the success to increasing financial aid for low-income students, Eberle-Sudre said.

The 26 institutions that are closing that completion gap also pointed to using targeted advising approaches or using their own data to examine subgroup performances in courses that had high withdrawal rates and then working with faculty to re-evaluate how they offer those courses or examining if additional tutoring was needed, according to the report.

"The traditional approach to advising has been on the student to seek help, but these institutions have flipped the narrative on its head and been more proactive in how they approach advising," Nichols said, adding that either they're mandating advising time for students or counselors are sitting down with students to help map out the courses they need to take to reach a degree.

Education Trust is also releasing two briefs to accompany the report that will delve deeper into the gaps between black and white students on these campuses and Latino and white students.

Minority student protests have taken off in the past few weeks over retention, lack of minority faculty and other issues that students feel hinder their success on campus. Those protests led to the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe. Missouri's Kansas City campus also made the list of institutions failing to close the completion gap and experiencing decreases in minority graduation.

"What we're seeing in the data is that all of these things are part of the mix or part of the issue and that maybe leads to lower completion rates for black students," Nichols said. "Generally when we have these conversations we are in some ways more likely to focus on income as the predictive issue and we're less likely to talk about race and challenges with racism in America."

Nichols said even when they examine the performance of people with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, race is still a factor.

The report also found that similar institutions, with similar SAT scores and percentage of minority students or demographics, could differ in widening or closing the completion gap.

"It really comes down to what that specific institution is doing, and that goes back to leadership, advising and the use of data," Nichols said. "What they do on campus matters at the end of the day."

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