Over the last five years or so, there’s a been a huge push among private foundations and public policymakers to focus on the problem of high school graduation. Only half of minority students graduate on time, we are told, a national disgrace. And it’s true. Yet far less attention is paid to the fact that there are literally hundreds of colleges and universities in this country where a 50 percent minority graduation rate would be a major improvement. This is the subject of a new report from Education Sector, released this morning.
Consider this table:
It shows the distribution of six-year graduation rates for black students at over 1,000 colleges and universities. Only 20 of those institutions, representing 1.1% of black students who started college as first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen in 2000, graduated 90 percent of those students within six years. 2.3% of the students attended an instiutions with a black graduation rate between 80% and 90%, etc.
As you can see, the big numbers are in the 30% to 39% range, and some go even lower. Overall, black students starting college at the beginning of the millennium were two-and-a-half times more likely to enroll at a school with a 70 percent chance of not graduating within six years than at a school with a 70 percent chance of earning a degree. Overall, black graduation rates are nearly 20 percentage points lower than rates for white students.
This is partly because black students are disproportionately enrolled in colleges with low graduation rates. It’s also because most colleges have an internal graduation rate gap, usually around 10 percentage points or so, between white students and students of color. But that’s just the average–some institutions have gaps of 20, 30 percentage points or more, others graduate black students at a higher rate than their white peers.
College graduation is a complex phenomenon. It’s partly a function of high school preparation, which for many students is substandard. It’s also related to income, gender, aptitude, stick-to-it-iveness, available financial aid, and other things. But, crucially, the institutions themselves also play a role here. Some of them do a good job of supporting minority and first-generation students, particularly during the often-difficult transition to college. Others–too many others–don’t. Therefore, we need stronger incentives–financial, governmental, and otherwise–for institutions to focus on helping as many minority students as possible earn degrees. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to squander the aspirations of tens of thousands of minority college students every year.
Also, if you want to look up the numbers for your alma mater and they’re not in the report, you can find them at the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator site. Select your college and then scroll down and click on “Retention/Graduation Rate”