Changing the Measures of Success for HBCUs

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by Arelis Hernandez

While graduation rates have long withstood criticism for being considered a prime indicator of institutional success in higher education, a group of predominantly Black colleges and universities are now calling for a new index that will factor in the unique barriers their students overcome to graduate.

Representing the public historically Black colleges and university (HBCU) sector, the New York-based Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF) Monday released Making the Grade: Improving Degree Attainment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a white paper arguing for a new index that places emphasis on factors such as students’ socioeconomic status and academic preparedness. Public HBCUs, in particular, are facing renewed concern about their relevance as policymakers and the public have increased scrutiny of public college outcomes.

The degree completion rate for full-time freshmen over a six-year period is one of the most widely used measures of institutional performance. Serving students who are disproportionately poorer and more likely to be first-generation college-going, public HBCUs typically have low completion rates in comparison with predominantly White, public flagship universities.

TMCF President Dwayne Ashley said TMCF and its member institutions are urging national and state data collection agencies such as the National Center for Education Statistics to incorporate a methodology that demonstrates how schools, as stated in the report, “raise their students from a position of academic weakness to strength.”

“We are using this as a call to action for policymakers who will be shaping these decisions to look at the role HBCUs are playing,” in serving vast numbers of students of color, he said.

Two HBCU presidents joined Ashley during a media conference call Monday to announce the white paper’s release: Dr. George Wright, Prairie View A&M University,  and Dr. Mary Sias, Kentucky State University. The presidents spoke about how Black colleges have made themselves accessible to students from minority and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Let me say that at Prairie View A&M University we understand the need to be held accountable for the resources we receive in the sense that our students make progress and are graduating,” said Wright. “But, Prairie View’s mission was changed in such a way that we are also required to serve the underserved in both urban and rural Texas. There are many students who for their own reasons did not do as well they should have in high school and have potential.”

“We are using this as a call to action for policymakers who will be shaping these decisions to look at the role HBCUs are playing,” in serving vast numbers of students of color, he said.

Also joining the conference call, Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a higher education professor from the University of Pennsylvania and HBCU expert, said the schools have a dual mission to provide access and excellence and to open opportunities for students from nontraditional backgrounds.

HBCUs have found success, she said, in graduating part-time students, transfer students, and students who stop and begin (swirling) their education over long periods of time. But those individuals are often not included graduation rates, Gasman noted.

“We are trying to get people to think differently about how to evaluate college success,” she said. “To better assess quality of performance means going beyond traditional measures to bring in the other factors students bring in with them.”

At Kentucky State University, Sias said they invest heavily in degree-completion initiatives that help students address difficult circumstances. The state’s Project Graduate programs identifies students close to finishing and helps them complete their degrees. Academics with Attitude ensures developmental assistance to students who are a step behind their college peers. Most of the students they help, the report stated, were African-American men.

Sias said when students helped by assistance programs are included, Kentucky State’s retention and graduation rates equal or surpass some of the state’s historically White institutions. Gasman said her research shows that when she controls for certain factors — standardized test scores and socioeconomic background — Black colleges show better completion rates.

TMCF asserts HBCUs serve a specific cohort of students with unique issues and those factors should be included in accountability measures.

“Traditional gradu­ation rate measures, which result in lower overall rates for HBCUs than for HWIs, simply do not reflect either the unique educational challenges or significant accomplish­ments of HBCUs,” the TMCF white paper authors wrote.

But Dr. Watson Scott Swail, the president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute, told Diverse that changing the methodology doesn’t fix the problem some schools have with graduating their students.

“The issue is that you have a multitude of variables in this process. The graduation rate is an important indicator and to say it isn’t is disingenuous,” said Swail. “That’s a bit harsh but I don’t think any institution, whether they are predominantly White or minority, should hide behind this stuff.”

Swail said there is insufficient data about transfer and part-time students, but the TMCF’s action statement may send the wrong message.

“You’re saying ‘You shouldn’t measure us that way because it doesn’t make us look good,’” he said. “Do you really want to be held to a lower standard?”

“Especially if you are a four-year institution, graduation rates are the measure,” said Swail. “Should student background and academic prowess be taken into consideration? Absolutely, but don’t say that graduation rates are the bad guy. They aren’t. They are the ultimate measure of success at the four-year level. If not, what is the point?”

Swail said until there is a national student database it will remain difficult to collect useful data about the many paths students take to graduation.

“The only problem with graduation rate is that we don’t follow students from institution to institution. We can fix that once people stop hiding behind (Family Educational and Privacy Act) legislation. But until we do, we’re stuck with the statistics we have.”

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) has opposed using graduation rates as the primary marker of collegiate achievement because it masks some of the causes for low retention — primarily socioeconomic concerns, said Dr. John Hammang, director of special project at AASCU.

“Graduation rates are a terrible way to measure transfer and part-time student degree completion. This is a long standing debate,” Hammang said.

Graduation rates came into use by national data collectors because it was doable with the data that was available,” Hammang said, who also supports the creation of Unicode federal database to track students moving across institutions. But will more detailed data sets show greater graduation rates?

“The answer is we are not sure but it would create a clearer picture. When you identify a problem you can deal with it,” he said.

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