Report Finds Race-based Gap in College Grad Rates

At many schools, white students graduate at notably higher rates.

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For decades now, colleges have focused their attention on increasing minority enrollment. But what happens once those students arrive on campus? A report this week from Education Sector, an independent think tank, finds that many colleges and universities are graduating their black students at rates that are significantly lower than those of their white students. The report also shows that some colleges that have worked to close the gap have been able to boost their graduation rate for black students—in some cases, high enough to surpass that of white students.

Some of the largest gaps between black and white graduation rates were found at smaller private institutions. Catholic University in the District of Columbia, St. Thomas University in Florida, and the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio, for example, each had differences of more than 40 percentage points between black and white students. But large public universities struggle, too. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Indiana University-Bloomington, and the University of Colorado-Boulder have gaps of about 20 percent in the graduation rates of their black students and their white students.

"Too often when colleges think about higher education opportunities for minority students, they end at admissions," says Kevin Carey, author of the report and the research and policy manager at Education Sector. "They think if they let students in, that's an opportunity. But opportunity without support is not actually opportunity."

Fewer than half of the black students who enroll in college graduate from four-year institutions within six years, according to the report, called "Graduation Rate Watch: Making Minority Student Success a Priority." Nationally, the average six-year graduation rate for all students is 57 percent. In 2000, of the roughly 120,000 black students attending four-year institutions as full-time freshmen, half were enrolled in an institution that graduated under 40 percent of its black students and 1 in 10 attended an institution with a black graduation rate below 20 percent.

Statistics for the report were gathered under the Student Right-to-Know Act, a bill passed in the 1990s that required higher education institutions to report graduation rates for all students who graduated within four, five, or six years of enrolling. The report focuses on data collected from 2001 to 2006.

Some schools have managed to buck the trend. For example, at Florida State University, the graduation rate is slightly higher for black students than white students. These unusual statistics are at least partly attributable to its comprehensive support program for first-generation students, the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement. About two thirds of CARE students are black.

"Student success does not arise by chance," says Vincent Tinto, chair of the Higher Education Program at Syracuse University and author of Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition. "Even with good intentions, success requires structure, intentionality, and proactivity."

The CARE program begins outreach in middle school and high school. Program staffers help disadvantaged students wade through the admissions process maze, and they meet with parents to provide information and guidance about how to help their children get into college. FSU relaxes admissions standards for the low-income, first-generation students who qualify for CARE. CARE also operates a tutorial lab that its students are required to attend at least eight hours per week—more if their grades slip—and even offers extra sections of freshman math courses.

"Everyone's involved," says Larry Abele, provost of FSU. "Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Outreach—everybody just pays attention. We have very immediate and aggressive follow-up for any student who has difficulties.

"It's not a cheap program," Abele adds. "But it's really a great program. And the truth is, if something is really important, you can find money for it."

Public educational institutions don't have deep pockets, so, Carey says, if they can do it, then other colleges can, too. "If you're a tier 1 university," says Carey, "and for six years in a row you have a large graduation gap, it suggests that you're not doing all you can do. At some institutions, the [black graduation] rates are so low, you really wonder what's going on."