When a 43 Percent Graduation Rate Means Success

Historically black colleges and universities are doing a better job serving students than headline graduation rates show. But that may no longer be good enough.

Barack Obama greets supporters at a presidential campaign rally at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, March 10, 2008. Jackson State is a historically black university with a relatively successful record of graduating students.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
April 14, 2014, 7:11 a.m.

Eliza­beth City State Uni­versity’s en­roll­ment is de­clin­ing, it’s strug­gling to ab­sorb state budget cuts, and just 43 per­cent of stu­dents gradu­ate in six years. But while this his­tor­ic­ally black col­lege in north­east­ern North Car­o­lina seems like a poster child for the woes of high­er edu­ca­tion, it’s ac­tu­ally an over­achiev­er: Stu­dents gradu­ate at about twice the rate stat­ist­ic­al mod­els would pre­dict, giv­en the demo­graph­ic the uni­versity serves, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Monthly‘s 2013 col­lege rank­ings.

His­tor­ic­ally black col­leges and uni­versit­ies — or HB­CUs — typ­ic­ally have lower-than-av­er­age gradu­ation rates, which is not sur­pris­ing giv­en the large num­bers of low-in­come, of­ten aca­dem­ic­ally un­der­prepared stu­dents they serve. But demo­graph­ics aren’t des­tiny. With­in the edu­ca­tion­al sec­tor, there’s sig­ni­fic­ant vari­ation in how many en­ter­ing fresh­men go on to earn de­grees.

As state and fed­er­al le­gis­lat­ors pres­sure col­leges to raise gradu­ation rates, HB­CUs can’t af­ford not to in­vest in strategies that can help stu­dents suc­ceed. “The pub­lic’s grown kind of weary of ex­cuses for not gradu­at­ing at a sig­ni­fic­ant enough rate,” says Johnny Taylor, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Thur­good Mar­shall Col­lege Fund, an or­gan­iz­a­tion rep­res­ent­ing 47 pub­licly sup­por­ted HB­CUs. Twenty-five states, in­clud­ing North Car­o­lina, have already tweaked their fund­ing for­mu­las to re­ward col­leges for met­rics like on-time gradu­ation, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Con­fer­ence of State Le­gis­latures.

Na­tion­ally, just 59 per­cent of all first-time col­lege stu­dents, at­tend­ing full-time, gradu­ate in six years, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. The rate for Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents is sig­ni­fic­antly lower — just 39.5 per­cent. Across four-year HB­CUs, the six-year gradu­ation rate is 35 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the United Negro Col­lege Fund.

Amer­ica’s 100 his­tor­ic­ally black col­leges have al­ways served stu­dents who are un­der­rep­res­en­ted in high­er edu­ca­tion. Today, 80 per­cent of HB­CU stu­dents are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and about 70 per­cent of stu­dents come from fam­il­ies with low enough in­comes to qual­i­fy for fed­er­al Pell Grants.

Giv­en that they serve dis­pro­por­tion­ate shares of dis­ad­vant­aged stu­dents, HB­CUs ac­tu­ally per­form pretty well. After con­trolling for Pell fund­ing and SAT scores, a 2012 UN­CF study found that HB­CUs do a bet­ter job en­sur­ing that low-in­come stu­dents gradu­ate than oth­er schools. The in­sti­tu­tions tend to fare well in The Wash­ing­ton Monthly‘s col­lege rank­ings, which weigh gradu­ation rates by tak­ing in­to ac­count such factors as the af­flu­ence and aca­dem­ic pre­par­a­tion of stu­dents.

And with­in the sec­tor, some col­leges and uni­versit­ies are do­ing much bet­ter than oth­ers. Forty per­cent of stu­dents at Mis­sis­sippi’s Jack­son State Uni­versity gradu­ate in four years, com­pared with just 12 per­cent at Texas South­ern Uni­versity, ac­cord­ing to The Edu­ca­tion Trust. Eliza­beth City State Uni­versity has a gradu­ation rate 10 points high­er than that of Vir­gin­ia’s Nor­folk State Uni­versity, an hour’s drive away.

At a re­cent Na­tion­al Journ­al event, Kati Hay­cock, pres­id­ent of The Edu­ca­tion Trust, ex­plained three things all col­leges can do to in­crease low-in­come and minor­ity-stu­dent achieve­ment: In­sti­tu­tion lead­ers have to make stu­dent aca­dem­ic suc­cess a primary fo­cus, use data to fig­ure out when stu­dents need sup­port, and re­design in­tro­duct­ory courses to make it easi­er for stu­dents to learn ne­ces­sary ma­ter­i­al and pro­gress.

Those strategies work for HB­CUs, too. Data col­lec­tion helped Jack­son State Uni­versity real­ize that it needed to broaden its fo­cus on re­ten­tion, says Mi­chael Dannen­berg, dir­ect­or of high­er edu­ca­tion and edu­ca­tion fin­ance policy at the Edu­ca­tion Trust. “Not just between their first and second year — where there’s a big dropoff — but between years two, three, four, five, and six,” he says. “Be­cause as many stu­dents will drop out between years two and six as will between years one and two.”

Eliza­beth City State Uni­versity hasn’t in­ves­ted in any par­tic­u­larly high-tech data track­ing sys­tems. But it does col­lect in­form­a­tion on stu­dent per­form­ance three weeks in­to every course — be­fore the midterm — to identi­fy stu­dents who may be fall­ing be­hind. EC­SU has also in­ves­ted in ser­vices like spe­cial ad­vising for fresh­men and a ment­or­ship pro­gram for black men. And like oth­er HB­CUs, the uni­versity tries to cre­ate a nur­tur­ing en­vir­on­ment for stu­dents. “We really en­cour­age stu­dents to be­long,” says De­borah Branch, as­so­ci­ate vice chan­cel­lor for stu­dent af­fairs. “We know that if stu­dents are con­nec­ted to the cam­pus and cam­pus life, they will really per­sist.”

Al­though many EC­SU stu­dents enter aca­dem­ic­ally un­pre­pared for col­lege, they usu­ally drop out for fin­an­cial rather than aca­dem­ic reas­ons, says Bar­baina Hou­s­ton-Black, the school’s dean of stu­dent life. Tu­ition and fees, at around $6,000 for state res­id­ents, are al­most en­tirely covered by max­im­um Pell grants. Sev­enty-two per­cent of EC­SU un­der­gradu­ates re­ceive Pell fund­ing. But stu­dents of­ten struggle to cov­er their liv­ing ex­penses, and they may be un­der pres­sure to keep work­ing in or­der to help fin­an­cially sup­port their fam­il­ies.

By keep­ing stu­dents on track aca­dem­ic­ally, EC­SU can help pro­tect stu­dents’ con­tinu­ing eli­gib­il­ity for state and fed­er­al grants. But there’s not much the col­lege can do to help stu­dents stay in school if they lose eli­gib­il­ity. EC­SU has some money for in­sti­tu­tion­al schol­ar­ships, but not much.

EC­SU’s cur­rent en­roll­ment and budget chal­lenges il­lus­trate how vul­ner­able many HB­CUs are to policy changes. State budget cuts strained the in­sti­tu­tion’s lim­ited fin­ances and led to a $5 mil­lion fund­ing short­fall this year. En­roll­ment has dropped 25 per­cent since 2009, partly be­cause the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina sys­tem has been slowly rais­ing ad­mis­sions re­quire­ments. As of last fall, ap­plic­ants need a GPA of 2.5 and at least a 17 com­pos­ite score on the ACT or an 800 com­bined score on the crit­ic­al read­ing and math sec­tions of the SAT. To put that in con­text, in 2013, the av­er­age Afric­an-Amer­ic­an SAT test taker earned an 860 com­bined score on those sec­tions. HB­CUs face stiff com­pet­i­tion from oth­er in­sti­tu­tions that can of­fer stu­dents bet­ter fin­an­cial-aid pack­ages.

If HB­CUs don’t start rais­ing gradu­ation rates, they’re go­ing to face de­clin­ing state sup­port un­der per­form­ance-fund­ing for­mu­las. And that could leave a his­tor­ic­ally un­der­served stu­dent pop­u­la­tion with even few­er op­tions. 

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