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University System of Maryland Sets Goals to Close Racial Graduation Gap

White and Hispanic college students enrolled in the University System of Maryland are graduating at higher rates than Black students, according to recent data collected by the university system.

Only 40 percent of Black students earn a degree within six years of entering college, compared with 65 percent of all students and more than 70 percent of Hispanics. The disparity between Black and all college graduates in the university system has increased 10 percent over the last three years, growing from 15 percent to 25 percent.

University system Chancellor William E. Kirwan says Maryland’s challenge of graduating a larger percentage of Black students in six years is a small piece of a larger national problem.

“The issue has to be put into a national context,” says Kirwan. “I don’t think that there is anything at work in Maryland that we do not see across the country. Unfortunately, underrepresented minorities have a lower graduation rate than the general student population in most states, probably in all states.”

Last year, Kirwan and the Board of Regents launched an initiative to narrow the achievement gap between Black and all students. The goal is to slice the gap in half, reducing it 12 percent by the year 2015. Each university in the system prepared campus-based strategies designed to narrow the graduation disparity gap.

“The data we have gives us benchmarks to measure our [future] performance,” says Kirwan. “Last year, each campus submitted a plan. Campuses and presidents will be held accountable for making progress towards [our] responsible and worthy goal.”

While the three historically Black universities enroll 57 percent of first-time, full-time Black freshmen in the seven-school system, they also have the lowest second-year retention rates for Black students in the system. With the exception of Salisbury University, the second-year retention rate for Black students at traditionally White institutions exceeds that of all students at traditionally White institutions in Maryland.

The data show that historically Black institutions, overall, must increase their second-year retention rates.

Coppin State University, a historically Black institution in Baltimore, has the lowest graduation rate in the system. Only 17 percent of freshmen in 2002 graduated in by 2008.

The low rate results from a number of stressors, including the socioeconomic backgrounds of many of its students and institutional instability, university officials say.

The university has had three presidents in six years and the majority of students at Coppin come from low-income Baltimore neighborhoods and failing Baltimore public schools.

The Baltimore public school district has the third worst graduation rate in the nation, according to a 2008 study released by the publication Education Week. The study, which analyzed 2004 data, found that just 34.6 percent of Baltimore high school students graduated four years after they began school.

The graduation rate at Bowie State University is the highest among Black colleges in the system at 40 percent. The University of Maryland at Eastern Shore is next in line at 35 percent.

Says Dr. Reginald Ross, vice president for enrollment management at Coppin: “The other historically Black institutions in the area: University of Maryland at Eastern Shore, Morgan State University [which is not a part of the system] and Bowie State University, do better than Coppin in terms of graduation rates because Coppin has a different group of students. We have more Pell-eligible students than any of those universities proportionately. Our students have less family support and fewer financial resources.”

About half of Coppin freshmen take remedial math and roughly half fail freshmen English the first time they take it, The Baltimore Sun reported. The high levels of remediation prolong the graduating process, Ross says.

Coppin is currently working to develop a strategic enrollment management plan with specific goals and objective related to persistence. The institution is also reassessing its admissions criteria.

“We are an urban institution with a mission of accessibility, but we are not an open admission university. We have to find a way to find students who are much more likely to be successful,” says Ross.

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