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Holding on to what they’ve got – analysis of programs implemented by six institutions to keep college students in school

A generation ago, when there were more college-age students than there were desks in America’s public and private colleges and universities, making sure that students stayed in school was hardly a priority. Even less exclusive institutions could be selective about which students they admitted and cavalier about those they lost.


Two things combined to change that situation. The first is the smaller cohort of college-age students. The second is the growing recognition that educational achievement can ameliorate the effects of past and present discrimination.


By the 1980s, programs designed to not just recruit students but to keep them through graduation had become common at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Today, programs in colleges and universities run the gamut from unadorned pre-college orientations to intensive coursework that doesn’t pause until students have diplomas. Although many modern retention programs evolved from efforts that were originally designed to keep Black students in college, African American students are still behind in the struggle to stay in school.


The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which researchers say is the only organization that routinely monitors the graduation rates of individual institutions, reports that only 36 percent of Black students at public Division I colleges and universities had graduated after six years, compared with 56 percent of white students. At Division I independent schools, the graduation rates were at least 15 percentage points higher. However, the spread between the chances of graduation for Black and white students was still the same, at approximately 21 percent. (NCAA divisions are athletics-oriented groupings based on institutional populations. Division I schools, by and large, are the most-populated colleges and universities in the country.)


Data which show high numbers of students of color who are poorly prepared for college do not fully explain the comparatively higher rates of dropouts in many minority student groups. Randi Levitz, executive vice president of USA Group Noel-Levitz, said that her firm conducted a study which showed that attitude and motivation are more important than grades in determining which students drop out. According to the study, more than 37 percent of the students who left school had grade-point averages higher than 2.5. “I don’t think there’s any single thing that’s more effective than something else. I think what’s more important is what is effective for that institution according to its resources,” said Clinita Ford, the founder and director of the National Higher Education Conference on Black Student Retention. “In general, extended orientation and academic advisement are important. And we know that you need to give attention to non-academic factors such as faculty effectiveness and behavior, interpersonal relationships, the involvement of the students in the institution, and so on.”


But school officials and retention specialists point out that these programs weren’t created simply because colleges and universities suddenly developed a conscience about the high numbers of their students who were dropping out. Money was an important motivator.


The number of high school seniors began to steadily decline in the late 1970s. Fewer incoming freshman meant fewer tuition dollars and less per-student matching funds from state and federal governments. As a result, colleges and universities began trying to hold onto the students they had rather than going out to recruit replacements–from a dwindling supply–for the ones they have lost through attrition.


“If you can prevent, a student from dropping out, it’s much more cost effective than going out and recruiting another one,” explained Levitz. “Institutions are spending a lot of money recruiting and they view [retention programs] as protection of their investment.”


In the last few years, however, the number of students graduating from high school has begun increasing once again, and demographics show that the trend will continue for at least the next three decades. This fact has some advocates of retention efforts worried that interest in holding onto students will correspondingly wane at post-secondary institutions.


“If once again we are faced with more students than we can really accommodate, is anyone going to be committed to retention?” said Betsy Barefoot, a co-director for research and publication at the University of South Carolina’s National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience and Students in Transition. “None of us really know the answer to that.”


Still, the gap in educational achievement persists–a fact widely acknowledged by higher education officials. “It’s very important that we do not delude ourselves that the issues that face poor people and people of color have been solved,” said Morris Head, who runs an academic support program that focuses on retention at San Francisco State University. “Because they have not.” “Institutions are making a more concerted effort to identify an academic profile for success,” said Dr. James Anderson, a retention consultant and the vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at North Carolina State University.


To get a sense of what kinds of programs are in place, Black Issues In Education looks at six institutions and their efforts to make their students successful:



Graduation Rates                               All Students   Student-Athletes



1989-90 Graduation Rate


(within six years)                               67%             68%


Four-year Graduation Average          65%             58%




                            Six-year            Four-year


                        Graduation Rate      Graduation Rate


                           #       %            #       %




American Indian/AN          11     55             39    49


Asian/PI                   102     71            350    67


Black                      405     49          1,572    46


Hispanic                    27     48             89    54


White                    2,792     70         11,200    68


Other                       17     71             29    72


Total                    3,354     67         13,279    65


It also provides academic and personal counseling, mentoring, and tutoring.

 The program also offers a credit-bearing “bridge” program, which was begun in 1975 to give students intensive help with skills in mathematics and English. The bridge program provides additional courses as well as a broad orientation to university life and assistance with some of the personal skills–such as learning to confront challenges–that are essential for success in college. Between fifty and seventy-five mostly Black and Latino students go through the seven-week, pre-college program.


 The students designated for comprehensive studies, who typically number about 550 in each entering freshman class, are also predominantly Black and Latino–and are referred to the program as part of the admissions process. However, comprehensive studies are open to all students who elect to affiliate themselves with the program. Despite the broad program of support, however, CSP students on average do not graduate at the same rate as their peers who are not in the program. The overall six-year graduation rate for the University of Michigan is 85 percent. For students in CSP, it is 75 percent.


 William Collins, CSP’s director, said that in many cases, the lack of preparation that students bring with them to the university is so serious that while CSP can bridge a large part of the gap, it can’t close it entirely. But according to Collins, that is not the only factor at work regarding the graduation rate of the program’s students.


 “We find, for example, that about 15 percent of CSP students leave the university in good standing–with good GPAs and good progress toward graduation,” he said. “We don’t know the exact reasons for that, but we think cost probably has a lot to do with it.”



Graduation Rates                  All Students   Student-Athletes


1989-90 Graduation Rate


(within six years)                   85%             80%


Four-year Graduation Average          85%             77%




                            Six-year            Four-year


                        Graduation Rate      Graduation Rate


                           #       %            #       %




American Indian/AN          23     87             88    72


Asian/PI                   465     86          1,566    87


Black                      256     70          1,078    67


Hispanic                   164     80            566    75


White                    3,674     86         15,187    87


Other                      142     86            183    84


Total                    4,724     85         18,668    85


COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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