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A recent analysis of Black graduation rates at a large group of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education found at least half had graduation rates of 34 percent or lower.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average national graduation rate is 59 percent while the average graduation ratefor African-American college students is 37 percent.

Graduation rates are determined by examining the percentage of students who enroll and then obtain a bachelor’s degree within six years at the same institution. The JBHE ranking is based on four-year averages for Black students who entered a particular institution between 2004 and 2007.

Unsurprisingly, Spelman College in Atlanta was ranked No. 1 with a Black graduation rate of 69 percent, followed by Howard University at 65 percent and Virginia’s Hampton University at 59 percent.

In fourth place was Morehouse University, of Atlanta, where 55 percent of Black students who entered graduated within six years. And rounding off the top five—and the group of institutions with Black graduation rates above 50 percent—was Fisk University in Nashville, with a rate of 52 percent.

Of the HBCUs in the Maryland-District of Columbia area, only Howard and Bowie State University (37 percent) had Black graduation rates above 34 percent.

Thirty-three percent of Black students who entered The University of Maryland-Eastern Shore graduated within six years and 30 percent at Morgan State. Coppin State University and the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) were among the seven institutions in the survey where less than one in five entering Black students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years with rates of 15 percent each.

Higher education experts and people within the HBCU community said the findings were not surprising. “On the surface, these findings would be a surprise and a source of dismay for some,” said Johnny Taylor Jr., president and CEO, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents many of the nation’s public HBCUs. But, he added, this is reflective of the status quo – and for good reason.

“If someone asks me is it realistic that HBCUs would graduate 80 percent of its students I would say no. It is simply not consistent with our mission,” Taylor added. “HBCUs on average admit students with a different profile from majority institutions.”

Other experts agreed. “One of the things that is important to understand about Black colleges is that most of them enroll students from low-income families income correlates with graduation rates,” said Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority-Serving Institutions.

Many also tend to have open enrollments, accepting students who are “underprepared and who have been failed by the K-12 system,” Gasman added.

Conversely, majority institutions – and even the top-ranked HBCUs on the list – tend to have more selective admission processes and to attract more students from affluent and middle-class families.

And there are other defining characteristics.

In explaining why UDC ranked so low in the JBHE compilation, for example, Acting Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Rachel Petty told the AFRO: “Urban, commuter, and community colleges have had historically low graduation rates, and UDC has all of those attributes.”

More than 50 percent of UDC’s 5,118 students attend its community college, which “tend to have a higher percentage of older, working students, and also have higher dropout and ‘stop-out’ rates, as well as more students with families.  All of these characteristics translate into higher attrition rates and lower graduation rates because these students have more competing priorities,” Petty added.

Disparities in funding and vestiges of segregation such as program duplication also place HBCUs at an unfair disadvantage, others said.

Earl Richardson, immediate past president of Morgan State University, said funding is “a major factor” in attracting a well-balanced mix of high-achieving and underachieving students and providing necessary infrastructure and resources to boost student success. But HBCUs often get the short end of the funding stick, making them less competitive.

“If you don’t have program inventory – which our Black schools tend to lack; if you don’t have attractive and modern facilities; if you don’t have the financial aid to help students afford school, then you would not attract that balanced student body that would give you higher retention and graduation rates,” Richardson said.

Those concerns were part of a lawsuit filed against Maryland by the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, advocates for Maryland’s HBCUs, against the state.

“The lawsuit is saying because of the neglect by the state in making its HBCUs comparable and competitive with White institutions it has indeed violated the Constitution of the United States because it has continued to perpetuate a dual system for Black students and White students.”

For these and other reasons, rankings like JBHE’s and the current metric for determining graduation rates can be “problematic,” especially when not offered in context, Gasman said.

“If this gets into the hands of people who don’t care about HBCUs or don’t understand the greater role of HBCUs this information could be misused,” she said. “…The gains that these schools make are not captured.”

Gasman, a leading HBCU authority, said she has offered an alternative evaluation model that considers input as well as output. “I think it is important that our community not waste its time comparing itself to the Harvards – we don’t have the same resources; we don’t have the same history,” Taylor said.

“There is a lot of heavy lifting that we as an HBCU community take on to prepare   academically for college and then to get them through college,” he added. “The type of effort and energy that comes from catching up a student that comes to college not ready for college, if you get them to graduate, you’ve done a great job.”

Taylor did concede that HBCUs can do better, however. “Every one of our institutions should be graduating more than 30 percent of its students. If an HBCU is not graduating at least that number of students, it is only fair that taxpayers and other underwriters question if it is a good investment,” he said.

HBCUs need to “do whatever it takes,” including implementing better academic and social interventions as soon as a student lands on campus, in order to ensure their success, Taylor said.

Solutions also begin at the top, he continued, as HBCUs need to do a better job of attracting and retaining talent among its faculty and administration – and then removing the governance issues that often drive them away.

“We need to find the best talent and then let them do what they are best at. Too many people are on the board but want to be president,” the HBCU advocate said. “I can’t tell you the number of talented leaders who want to give back to the HBCU community but refuse to be entangled with poor governance. And all of that trickles down into the ability to retain good faculty, to attract students and ultimately affects graduation rates.”