HBCUs Tackle The Knotty Problem Of Retention
By Karin Chenoweth
They leave because their money runs out or their grandparents need some help at home. They leave because they never made any friends and didn’t feel like part of the college. They leave because their sweetheart attends a different institution and they transfer there. They leave because they are overwhelmed by a level of work they were never prepared to do.Students leave college for all kinds of reasons. Although only some of the reasons are in the control of the colleges, the institutions look bad when only about three out of four freshmen return for their sophomore year.The retention of students is widely acknowledged to be one of the knottiest problems in higher education. It is of particular concern for Black students. The national average retention rate of African American students is 45 percent within five years, as compared to 57 percent for White students, according to the Frederick D. Patterson Institute. The problem has the potential of dividing campuses, with faculty members blaming admissions offices for admitting the wrong kind of student, admissions officers blaming student-life people for not providing a supportive social environment, and everybody blaming the high schools for sending students unprepared for college work. Although retention is a problem which has emerged throughout higher education in the last few years, it is one with which historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), where five-year graduation rates vary from 30 percent to about 70 percent, have long grappled. It is that very experience, argue some, that offers valuable lessons to the rest of higher education.According to Dr. Ursula Wagener and Dr. Michael T. Nettles in an article in the March/April issue of Change magazine, HBCUs have a lot to say to colleges and universities across the nation. Wagener and Nettles were reporting on a retention project undertaken by 10 private HBCUs funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.In an interview, Wagener, an adjunct professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “The Black colleges have a whole tradition and culture of dealing with kids who have a poor secondary education. Most of the … Black colleges are teaching colleges, not research institutions. So you get many, many faculty who are willing to spend time with kids.“I believe that HBCUs are doing a very good job with retention,” says Dr. Antoine Garibaldi, provost of Howard University and a widely acknowledged expert on the issue of retention. In 1998, 83 percent of Howard’s freshman returned for their sophomore year, up 2 percent from the previous year. Howard’s five-year retention rate, or graduation rate, is 42 percent. Garibaldi adds that in the last three to five years HBCUs have become much more focused on the importance of not only admitting students but of having them graduate.Howard University and Garibaldi’s former institution, Xavier University, have been part of the Pew Charitable Trust’s five-year retention program. Says Wagener of the program: “What we learned and our experience might be relevant particularly to small institutions. So we’re hoping that the experience and lessons will be relevant to small, liberal arts colleges and small state colleges. For that reason, Pew Charitable Trusts is now preparing a report that will detail the programs that HBCUs have devised to retain their students.”According to the article in Change, each of the campuses approached the problem of retention slightly differently. For example, Hampton University faculty members are recruited to be faculty development advisors, meeting with between five and 15 freshmen on academic probation, helping students organize their work, and socializing with them. At Xavier, science and mathematics faculty have coordinated their courses to move forward at the same pace so that they reinforce each other, as well as organized study groups with students. Each faculty member counsels 35 students and monitors them closely, which requires a weekly meeting to report grades. At Spelman — which graduated 72 percent of its 1987 freshman class within six years, making it one of the most successful colleges in graduating African Americans — incoming freshmen are assigned a Big Sister, and the Learning Resources Center offers academic advice, peer tutoring, and instruction in study techniques. Students are tutored by peers and faculty members. The tutors are told that tutoring is not just for those who are behind academically, but for anyone who wants to improve.All the campuses considered the issue of retention to be a key one integral to their mission. As long as they recruit and enroll disadvantaged students, says the article in Change, they will never achieve the 90-percent-plus graduation rates of the very selective private institutions. And yet Hampton, Xavier, and Spelman have clearly been doing something special to graduate students.“What I learned about retention is it’s one of the most complex topics imaginable,” Wagener adds. “Financial problems are the most prevalent. But the financial, academic, and personal are intertwined. Kids who fall behind academically lose their scholarships and then they lose focus.”Although Garibaldi has spent a great deal of time on the academic and personal issues, first at Xavier and now at Howard, he believes it is the financial one that wins out when students leave college.“I think that the biggest challenge is addressing the financial aid issue,” he says. “Most students leave because of financial issues. Most students [at HBCUs] come from families that don’t have a lot of money.”Garibaldi says that one of his many jobs at Howard University is to convince students that the financial sacrifices, in the forms of taking out college loans and losing income while a student, are worthwhile.“They need to be made more confident that this is a worthwhile investment. It helps when you talk about long-term benefit,” he says.Students at HBCUs have parents who are less educated and tend to be less well off than students at other colleges. Still, these are not new problems for HBCUs, and they have grappled with them since their inception.“One of the main reasons we lose students is finances,” says Dr. Edward Fort, chancellor of North Carolina A&T University. “Seventy percent of the student body is on some form of financial aid and scholarships. Even with financial aid, including work study, for some youngsters the press of financial need is overwhelming. We have a number of students who stop out, work full time, and return part time.”In part, to be able to offer scholarships and thus tackle the financial issues directly, North Carolina A&T has undertaken to raise $50 million for the university’s endowment. This is part of its response to a slowing of applications and a slightly reduced retention rate, two phenomena that university officials attribute to a smaller number of high school graduates in North Carolina in the last several years.To add to the university’s woes, the North Carolina legislature recently decided that state schools must not admit more than about 18 percent of their student body from out of state.In addition, says Dr. Harold Martin, vice president for academic affairs, “In North Carolina today, the aggressiveness of majority institutions to diversify has led to a tremendous recruitment for the same pool of students that we seek.”The cap on out-of-state students has been particularly difficult for NC A&T, because it has long drawn African American students from all over the country. Sixty percent of its applicants come from outside North Carolina, drawn by its nationally recognized engineering and business programs, among others.Fort has tackled the issues of recruiting and retaining students not only through scholarships, but through a program of systematic improvement of its engineering, science, and professional programs such as the new offering of a doctorate in electrical and mechanical engineering and a comprehensive mentoring program. Every student has a guaranteed advisor from the time he enters as a freshman until the end of his senior year, Fort says. In that way, students are exposed to what he calls, preaching the gospel according to A&T.Dr. Clinton Bristow Jr., president of the Alcorn State University, faces somewhat different issues from NC A&T because his school has not traditionally drawn from outside the state of Mississippi and his students are, if anything, more financially strapped. Alcorn State graduates 40 percent of its students within five years, which is below the national average for African American students.“Of the 60 percent who don’t graduate in five years,” he says, “some of them stop out and come back. Some of them go to other institutions. They’re just like free agents in sports. There’s no loyalty to an institution.“I want students to feel they are letting the institution down if they fail — [they’re letting] their family down, their community down. We preach very heavily that you have a big burden on your shoulders.”Although he spends a great deal of time and attention on retention — particularly of athletes, who graduate at a slightly higher rate than the rest of his student body (42 percent) — Bristow argues that there are other indicators of success.For example, says Bristow, the percentage of nursing students who pass the state nursing exam (96 percent) or the number of education students who pass the National Teachers Exam before receiving their degree (100 percent) is more important than retention rates.“I don’t want my sole measure of success to be retention….The way we’re going to sustain ourselves is not by our retention, but by having programs that prepare people to be successful,” he says.
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