Report Finds Race-Based Gap in College Grad Rates

Lucia Graves, US News, April 22, 2008

For decades now, colleges have focused their attention on increasing minority enrollment. But what happens once those students arrive on campus? A report this week from Education Sector, an independent think tank, finds that many colleges and universities are graduating their black students at rates that are significantly lower than those of their white students. The report also shows that some colleges that have worked to close the gap have been able to boost their graduation rate for black students—in some cases, high enough to surpass that of white students.

Some of the largest gaps between black and white graduation rates were found at smaller private institutions. Catholic University in the District of Columbia, St. Thomas University in Florida, and the College of Mount St. Joseph in Ohio, for example, each had differences of more than 40 percentage points between black and white students. But large public universities struggle, too. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Indiana University-Bloomington, and the University of Colorado-Boulder have gaps of about 20 percent in the graduation rates of their black students and their white students.

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Fewer than half of the black students who enroll in college graduate from four-year institutions within six years, according to the report, called “Graduation Rate Watch: Making Minority Student Success a Priority.” Nationally, the average six-year graduation rate for all students is 57 percent. In 2000, of the roughly 120,000 black students attending four-year institutions as full-time freshmen, half were enrolled in an institution that graduated under 40 percent of its black students and 1 in 10 attended an institution with a black graduation rate below 20 percent.

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Some schools have managed to buck the trend. For example, at Florida State University, the graduation rate is slightly higher for black students than white students. These unusual statistics are at least partly attributable to its comprehensive support program for first-generation students, the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement. About two thirds of CARE students are black.

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The CARE program begins outreach in middle school and high school. Program staffers help disadvantaged students wade through the admissions process maze, and they meet with parents to provide information and guidance about how to help their children get into college. FSU relaxes admissions standards for the low-income, first-generation students who qualify for CARE. CARE also operates a tutorial lab that its students are required to attend at least eight hours per week—more if their grades slip—and even offers extra sections of freshman math courses.

“Everyone’s involved,” says Larry Abele, provost of FSU. “Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Outreach—everybody just pays attention. We have very immediate and aggressive follow-up for any student who has difficulties.

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That doesn’t mean that schools without a gap necessarily have good programs in place. The report notes that some schools achieve racial parity chiefly through highly selective admissions. At 98 percent, Harvard’s six-year graduation rate is the highest in the country. “Harvard only admits students who are most likely to succeed,” it says. “Unsurprising, nearly all of them do.”

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