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College Officials Urged to Monitor the Graduation Rate Gap

Experts cite need to grapple with underlying issues of race and retention.

recent report by the Washington, D.C.-based Education Sector, an independent education policy think tank, brought to light a little-discussed dimension of race and retention analysis. Documenting that there are 62 U.S. colleges and universities where the six-year graduation rates for Black undergraduate students have recently outpaced those of their White peers, the report authored by Education Sector research and policy manager Kevin Carey has pointed out that schools where underrepresented minorities maintain high graduation rates in comparison to Whites place a detailed emphasis on understanding how all of their students are performing. Such colleges and universities “monitor year-to-year change, study the impact of different interventions on student outcomes, break down the numbers among different student populations, and continuously ask themselves how they could improve,” according to “Graduation Rate Watch: Making Minority Student Success a Priority,” the Education Sector report released this past April.

While some retention and higher education access experts say the report bears out what they have highlighted in recent years, they urge institutions to dig even deeper with student monitoring and assistance, for example, by paying close attention to how class and gender issues overlap with those of race and ethnicity. Retention and higher education access experts say that the research on college populations and student performance is growing increasingly nuanced and detailed, and that institutions should continue to refine their intervention strategies to improve student retention.

“Let me tell you, if I am one of those institutions that had a big negative Black-White graduation rate gap, I’m going to take a pretty close look at what it is that I’m doing,” says Dr. Thomas D. Parker, interim president and senior associate of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington.

While it’s widely known that Black and Hispanic students graduate at high rates and do as well as their White counterparts at the most selective institutions, such as Ivy League and other elite private schools, the Education Sector report revealed a wide selection of institution types where Black students perform well. Schools as diverse as Florida State University and American University reported Black graduation rates posting higher than those of White students at the respective campuses. The report also shows diversity among the institutions where Blacks have significantly lower graduation rates than White students.

“This is probably the best study on the topic that I have seen, and the reason it’s so good is that it makes everyone understand that this is a complex business and that not all institutions are the same. You can’t compare all institutions in the same way; you have to understand where each institution is coming from,” Parker says.

“If a university says, ‘our first priority is to hire Nobel Prize-type professors,’ then it’s unlikely they’re going to put a lot of effort into the Black-White graduation rate gap. This (report) will put that issue a little higher on the agenda,” he contends.

Digging Deeper

Dr. Chrissy Coley, the vice president of retention services at EducationDynamics, a New Jersey-based higher education enrollment and retention services company, points out that while colleges and universities are developing a wide array of retention strategies to address specific groups within their student population, they should pay attention to gender divisions among underrepresented minorities. Coley, a former assistant vice provost for student success at the University of South Carolina, says there’s a great concern that the low retention of Black males on college campuses accounts for a significant part of the graduation rate disparity between Blacks and Whites at many places.

“When I was at the University of South Carolina, we broke down our retention and graduation rates in several different ways. We also did specifically look at race and gender, and we did find that our African-American women, by the time we’re looking at six-year graduation rates, were graduating at the same level as our Caucasian students while African-American men were significantly below those rates,” Coley says.

Coley adds that while gender differences in graduation rate disparities were “something I don’t really think this report hit on,” institutions should take it into account if they are concerned about underrepresented minorities. She cites research books, such as African-American Men in College edited by Dr. Michael J. Cuyjet, for documenting the struggles of Black male college students.

“It’s a fabulous book as it looks at African- American men and their needs that are very unique even from African-American women. It takes a look at initiatives some campuses are putting in place to particularly address their needs related to identity development, social integration, academic support, being a part of a peer community that really values success and achievement, and mentoring from faculty,” Coley explains.

Dr. Jennifer Engle, the interim director and senior research analyst of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, says it’s important for institutions that care about their diversity to “make sure that minority students have mentoring and peer support from other students from their background, and to create something of a critical mass on campus.

“I think organizing a support group around racial identity is really important for minority students to make them feel they do belong on the college campus,” she contends.

She adds that institutions that establish strong support systems for their low-income, first-generation students are able to extend the lessons of those programs to all students, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

“One of the things we highlighted in our “Demography is Not Destiny” report is that institutions often take an overall approach in looking at the retention problem; they think only in terms of the overall student population,” she says

“We found that if you design retention programs with low-income and first-generation students in mind, those programs will also work for the general student population. But the reverse is not necessarily true,” Engle notes.

Recently, Engle presented research findings at the Student Financial Aid Research Network Conference (SFARN) in Baltimore that highlighted the difficulty of overcoming socioeconomic disadvantages to persist and graduate from college. For example, only two-thirds of all low-income, first-generation students entering public two-year colleges enroll for the second year compared to about 85 percent of students without these major risk factors, who return for their second year of college, according to Engle’s analysis.

Among the low-income, first-generation students going into higher education, 54 percent belong to a racial minority, she says. “Seventy-five percent start in the two-year sector, while 13 percent start in a four-year public institution and six percent start in a private four-year institution. By comparison, among those who are neither low-income nor first generation, about 54 percent start in a four-year institution,” Engle adds.

Dr. Watson Scott Swail, the president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute in Virginia Beach, Va., says colleges and universities ultimately bear the responsibility for providing a sufficient level of institutional support for the students they admit. He says that many higher education institutions, most notably those with open admissions, have not met their obligation to adequately support their students. The Educational Policy Institute is a research and policy organization devoted to higher education access.

“Do we do students any favor by letting them in if we really do not have the ability to support them through?” Swail says.

“There are a number of things at play here. But the biggest thing to ask is do these institutions have the wherewithal to help students get through, and in many cases they don’t. I’ve been in predominantly White institutions; I’ve been in HBCU institutions … and the institutions that do well are those that support their students and have the money to do it,” he notes.

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