Colleges Take Action to Boost Minority Grad Rates

Black students tend to graduate at lower rates than whites, but some schools are bucking the trend.

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At Arkansas Baptist College, an open-admissions HBCU of just 700 students in Little Rock, Vice President of Academic Affairs Robert Houston says the six-year graduation rate is only 26 percent, which represents a step forward for the school. But this liberal arts college has increased its student body—its enrollment was a mere 150 just three years ago—and officials attribute the boom to an improving academic reputation, new facilities construction, and an increasing number of athletic programs. "A lot of students want to eventually become involved with [NCAA] Division 1 institutions," says Houston. He says that rising enrollment has helped boost the graduation rate.

But it's not just the HBCUs that are working hard to improve the graduation rates for blacks and other minority students. Georgia State University, a research university in downtown Atlanta, increased its percentage of minority students graduating in six years from about 32 percent in 2002 to more than 50 percent in 2007, which is almost 5 percentage points higher than the school's nonminority graduation rate. Associate Provost Tim Renick says the gains came from using student performance data to identify potholes on the path to obtaining a bachelor's degree, such as high failure rates in introductory courses and the dropout rate between the sophomore and junior years.

GSU took a campuswide approach to improving graduation rates for all its students—in 2002, its overall six-year graduation rate was 32 percent—but administrators found that their programs were particularly effective for minority students. A combination of in-class academic advising, peer tutoring, and first-year learning communities—where faculty members taught multiple courses and served as advisers to the same group of students—helped to increase retention rates between freshman and sophomore years by about 6 percentage points. Those rates rose by 10 to 12 percentage points for minority students. The majority of GSU students are first-generation college students, and Renick says GSU's approach might have a greater effect on those students than on students who are more familiar with the college experience.

"Georgia State's example demonstrates that institutions can strive for access and success simultaneously," says Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at the nonprofit group Education Trust, which recently released two studies on minority achievement and graduation rates. "Schools should see these as twin goals, not an either-or proposition."

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