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Graduation Rates Drop As Schools Take On More Low-income Students

Graduation rates drop systematically as the size of an institution’s low-income student population increases, even at selective four-year colleges and universities, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. However, the trend doesn’t necessarily hold true for some institutions that serve large numbers of low-income students, like Spelman College and Fisk University, which were praised for their high graduation rates. 

The report, “Placing College Graduation Rates in Context: How 4-Year College Graduation Rates Vary With Selectivity,” also found variations in graduation rates by gender and race across the comparison groups.

“The purpose of this study was to provide a context for comparing graduation rates among ‘similar’ institutions,” the report states. Studies have shown that “high school academic preparation and measures of socioeconomic status such as family income and parent’s education are highly predictive of degree attainment. Therefore, a more in-depth picture of graduation rates may be gained by comparing institutions that are similar with respect to the characteristics of their student bodies, rather than by making comparisons across all institutions.”

Researchers compared the six-year 2004 graduation rates among 1,301 four-year colleges and universities. Institutions were grouped by their selectivity levels (very, moderately, minimally) within Carnegie classifications (doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s). Within each of these groups, the colleges were sub-grouped according to the low-income enrollment size (small, moderate, large) in the graduation rate cohort.

Within these groups, the graduation rates were directly and inversely related to the size of the low-income population. For instance, the 2004 graduation rate for those with small low-income enrollments was 69 percent, while the rates for the moderate and large enrollments were 57 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

The study also found that the proportion of Black or Hispanic students in the 1998 freshman cohorts used for the study increased as low-income enrollment increased. For example, Blacks made up 29 percent of the freshman class among baccalaureate institutions with large low-income enrollments, and just 2 percent among institutions with small low-income enrollments.

Moreover, of the four-year institutions included in the study, 319 (about 25 percent) were considered low-income serving. These institutions, the study found, were more likely to have religious affiliations, be minimally selective, have large proportions of Black and Hispanic students and smaller undergraduate full-time-equivalent enrollment. Just over 20 percent of these low-income institutions were HBCUs.

The 2004 median graduation rate for low-income serving institutions was 39 percent, compared to 56 percent for other institutions.

Despite the low median graduation rate, some low-income serving institutions, including five HBCUs, were described in the study as “high performing” because they graduate a high proportion of their students.

“The 2004 graduation rate for Spelman College (77 percent) was by far the highest graduation rate in its low-income peer group of very selective baccalaureate institutions,” the study says.

The other “high performing” HBCUs included: Fisk University (63.8) in the moderately selective bachelor’s group, North Carolina Central University (50.5) and Xavier University of Louisiana (48.4) in the minimally selective master’s group, and Mills College (72.4) in the minimally selective bachelor’s group.

Finally, in terms of gender, the average 2004 graduation rate for women was 60 percent — 6 percentage points higher than that of men. And generally, the study found that as the number of low-income students increased, this gap widened.

“This study makes no attempt to determine the reasons certain institutions were more successful with respect to graduation rates than other low-income serving institutions,” the study says. “Rather, the purpose is simply to point out that some institutions are graduating relatively large proportions of students while serving large economically disadvantaged populations.”

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