Southern U.S. College Graduation Rates Lag Behind National Average - Higher Education
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Southern U.S. College Graduation Rates Lag Behind National Average

by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

A nuanced picture of college completion rates in southern U.S. states emerged Tuesday with the release of a study report that shows most of the states trailing the national average—a trend that the report’s authors say could have negative implications for the region’s workforce and its increasingly diverse student population if things don’t improve.

But while the study released Tuesday paints a disquieting portrait of college degree attainment for minorities in the South, education policy experts say it simply highlights a problem that has been occurring in the South for years.

“The findings of the report are not anything new,” said Dr. Mikyung Ryu, associate director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C.-based higher education organization that represents presidents and chancellors of accredited, degree-granting institutions throughout the United States.

Ryu was referring to the study released Tuesday by the Southern Regional Education Board entitled Measuring Success by Degrees: The Status of Completion in SREB States.

The SREB study found that, of the 16 Southern states that comprise the membership of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), a nonprofit education policy organization, 10 states had graduation rates in their public four-year colleges and universities in 2008 that lagged behind the national average of 55 percent. Collectively, the SREB states had a graduation average of 53 percent at their public four-year institutions.

The six states that exceeded the national average are Delaware (67 percent), Florida (59 percent), Maryland (65 percent), North Carolina (59 percent), South Carolina (60 percent) and Virginia (67 percent).

The 10 states that trailed the national average are Alabama (48 percent), Arkansas (37 percent), Georgia (50 percent), Kentucky (48 percent), Louisiana (38 percent), Mississippi (49 percent), Oklahoma (47 percent), Tennessee (48 percent), Texas (49 percent) and West Virginia (48 percent).

“There isn’t any single answer to this complex problem,” Ryu said. “But several factors are at play.”

Among those factors, Ryu said, is that the South has a heavier concentration of students from low-income families. And, with family income being one of the strongest predictors of college success, graduation rates lag in regions with higher concentrations of low-income families. Ryu also cited lack of academic rigor or “whether a student is academically prepared to succeed in college,” which is also considered a strong predictor of college success.

“Hispanic and Black students are concentrated at the bottom of family income or underprepared segments of the student population, so there are some inter-relations between those two factors and race and ethnicity,” Ryu said.

The less-than-average performance in the South comes despite the fact that the SREB states have generally increased graduation rates at four-year universities in recent years, the report states.

With a college degree being seen as the “gateway to the American middle class,” as stated by the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, the lower-than-average college graduation rates in member states foretell less economic mobility for America’s increasingly diverse student population.

“Colleges will need to do a better job of serving and supporting this diverse student body,” said Crystal Collins, research associate for education policies within the SREB, speaking Tuesday during an SREB Webinar.

Collins said the states that lagged in college completion rates were the ones that lagged in high school graduation rates, which points to the need for states to better prepare students throughout the K-12 level.

“States need to do a better job of graduating high school students on time and then enrolling them in college,” Collins said.

The situation is particularly urgent for Black and Hispanic students as a whole, the report says, because the proportion of such students generally declines as they advance in education, while the proportion of White students increases.

For instance, the report states, Black students in SREB states comprise 26 percent of public K-12 enrollment, but only 22 percent of high school graduates, 21 percent of undergraduate enrollment, and 16 percent of recipients of bachelor’s degrees. With Hispanics, the numbers are 19, 16, 11, and 8 percent, respectively. Whites, on the other hand, represent 51 percent of public K-12 enrollment, but 58 percent of high school graduates, 63 percent of undergraduate enrollment, and 70 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients.

“Weak graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students mean that too many of these students never get far enough in school to have the opportunity to attend college,” the report states. “These groups of students have disproportionately lower rates of college enrollment and degree completion than their White peers.”

SREB officials recommended a series of strategies and tactics in order to boost college completion rates in the South, including creating and adhering to a state plan to improve college graduation, creating a “graduation-centered culture” at schools and universities, and offering college students more support services, such as tutoring, counseling and financial aid information.

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