The Gap in Graduation Rates

At many colleges, a disparity who makes it to a diploma.

George Mason University has succeeded in closing the black and white student grad-rate gap.

George Mason University has succeeded in closing the black and white student grad-rate gap.

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Siedah Crichton was a high school senior peering down the various paths for college when she heard about something that helped make her choice easier. It was a comprehensive support program for low-income, first-generation college students at Florida State University called care, the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement. To Crichton—one of four children in a family that moved to Miami from Jamaica a few years before she was born—it sounded like a good approach. Now a premed student at FSU, Crichton, who is black, says she was able to find "a real community" in the care program. That connection could play a big role in helping her to graduation.

Colleges have long focused their attention on increasing minority enrollment. But what happens once those students arrive on campus? A recent report 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 for their white students. The report also shows that some colleges that have worked to close the gap have indeed been able to boost their graduation rate for black students—in some cases, high enough to surpass that of their white classmates.

Fewer than half of the black students who enroll in college graduate from four-year institutions within six years, according to the report "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.

"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."

Small schools, big gap. 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 rate differences of more than 40 percentage points between black and white students in 2006.

Officials at those schools note that their institutions enroll fewer students to begin with, which means a relatively small number of dropouts can have a large effect on the percentages. For example, the class that graduated in 2006 at St. Thomas University originally included only 64 black students out of a total of 233 students, according to Jerry Weinberg, director of institutional research at the school.

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 percentage points in the graduation rates of black students and white students.

Some schools, like George Mason University and Florida State University, have managed to buck the trend: Their graduation rate is slightly higher for black students than for white students. In Florida State's case, these unusual statistics are at least partly attributable to its care program. 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."

Early guidance. The care program begins outreach in middle school and high school. Program staffers help disadvantaged students wade through the admissions 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 students who qualify for care. The program 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.