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College graduation rates will decline precipitously nationally in the coming years if nothing is done to improve the completion rates of Black and Hispanic students, who represent the fastest growing student populations in colleges and universities, says the latest annual report released by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

Nearly 52 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen at public four-year colleges and universities earned their bachelor’s degrees within six years in SREB states in 2007, the report indicates. The 16 Southern states that encompass the SREB lagged behind the national graduation rate of 55 percent.When disaggregated by race, the data show that graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students were lower than the national and regional averages.

Roughly 43 percent of Hispanic students and 40 percent of Black students nationwide graduated from a college or university in six years in 2007 compared with 58 percent of White students. In SREB states, the numbers are nearly identical.

“The overall college graduation rate will go down unless the graduation gaps between groups are closed because the faster growing groups have the lowest rates,” said Joseph Marks, director of education data services for SREB and co-author of the report.

Over the next decade, the educational pipeline will be infused with large numbers of minorities, experts say. By 2022, minorities are projected to be the majority of public high school graduates in 10 of the 16 SREB states, the data reveal.

In fact, Hispanic students are expected to account for 31 percent of the region’s projected public high school graduation rates by 2022, up from 14 percent in 2005. White high-school students who represented 60 percent of overall students in 2005 will account for 43 percent in 2022.

Nationally, the increase of minority populations will follow a similar trajectory, the data show.

Not only must states work harder to improve college retention and graduation rates, but they must also work harder to make higher education more affordable.

“Kids who do not think that their families have the money to send them to college, do not do the work to prepare,” said Patrick Callan, president of The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

In terms of retaining more students, SREB researchers identified strategies that have already proven successful at institutions with a large numbers of minority and first-generation college students. Among the strategies for successful retention, a shared sense of responsibility throughout the university, high faculty engagement, clear expectations for students and strong learning communities. D

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