The causes of poor college graduation rates among low-income, first-generation and minority students have pervaded the pages of academic publication for years, while the instances in which African-American students have outperformed their White counterparts in the same area have gone largely undocumented.
According to a new report released by Education Sector, an independent education policy think tank, there are currently 62 colleges and universities where the six-year graduation rates for Black undergraduate students outpace that of their White peers.
Typically, Black students graduate at a lower rate than White students at the same institution. And although Ivy League institutions like Dartmouth and Yale universities have achieved virtual parity as it relates to Black and White graduation rates through selective admissions, others such as Florida State University have worked diligently to develop effective retaining resources and initiatives that empower minority and low-income students to persist.
In 2000, FSU established the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE). Six years later, the university posted its highest ever six-year graduation rate for Black students — 72 percent.
By reaching out to high-risk students as early as the sixth grade, CARE is able to provide a steady stream of support for curious students and families. CARE meets with the students’ parents and provides them with information on college — from complicated financial aid forms and admissions applications to studying for the SAT.
“We work with the whole students. There is no issue that’s too small that we can’t help with, says Dr. William Hudson, the associate director of CARE.
Researcher Kevin Carey, author of the report, attributes the success of FSU and others to vigilance and dedication.
“What distinguishes Florida State from other institutions is that they are gathering information and investing in the resources to provide students with the necessary support,” says Carey. “It’s about being vigilant and making student retention an organizational policy and supplying the resources.”
Oftentimes, large institutions will have a number of departmental or program-based retention initiatives for minority and low-income students, however the isolation of retention programs can be detrimental to a student’s academic health, Carey warns.
“Many universities isolate their retention programs in the student affairs offices, but retention is academic. FSU has high-quality academic standards. It provides smaller classes for math and science and the continuity of support. Students are not lost in transitions from one college to another,” Carey says, insisting that attention is the most important factor.
“Successful colleges pay attention to graduation rates. They monitor year-to-year changes and break down the numbers among different student populations, study the impacts of different interventions and continuously ask themselves how they can improve,” Carey writes in the report.
Other institutions struggle.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison boosted its Black student graduation rate by 20 percent from 2002 to 2006, but Whites still graduate at a higher rate than Blacks, leaving the school with a 22 percentage point gap.
“The most startling observation about this reports is that these top-rate universities produce stagnate or declining minority graduation rates year-after-year, and they do nothing about it,” Carey says.
Researchers at Education Sector agree that there is a need for greater accountability on a state level for institutions that fall short. Most states report having some kind of system whereby information about higher education success is gathered, but few have created the kind of accountability systems that will make college rates more of an institutional priority, the report states.
State funding could also be used to challenge institutions to close graduation rate disparities. By allotting a portion of institutional funding according to the number of students who finish college, not just on those who begin their college careers, more colleges and universities would engage in retaining minority students.
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