Focusing on Retention and Graduation
If the U.S. is going to meet President Obama's ambitious goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, then we need to start paying attention to one of the nation's most underserved groups: Hispanic students. Experts expect these students to make up over 20% of the American college population by 2020, yet they currently lag far behind most other racial and ethnic groups in college completion rates. In Rising to the Challenge, a recent analysis of Hispanic college completion, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) argues that raising Latino graduation rates must become a 'national priority.'
Drawing on widely accepted data from the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the report indicates that at the average college or university, only 51% of Hispanic students earn a bachelor's degree in six years. By contrast, 59% of white students earn a bachelor's degree in six years at the average college or university. Those eight percentage points represent a lot of students, and a very troubling college completion gap.
Taking this gap as their starting point, the AEI set out to determine the underlying cause. It's been easy for institutions to dismiss it as a problem with the students, a failure of either their home lives or the K-12 system to properly prepare Hispanic students for the challenges of college. While efforts to improve college prep and strengthen the K-20 pipeline are certainly important steps toward closing the gap, the AEI report indicates that changing certain practices at many higher education institutions may get us even closer to that goal.
From Rising to the Challenge, page 6.
In Rising to the Challenge, the AEI broke down the college completion data by the selectivity of the institution. They separated schools into six groups, as defined by the 2009 edition of Barron's Profiles of American Colleges:
- Noncompetitive colleges, which typically only require applicants to have graduated from high school.
- Less competitive colleges, which have median freshman test scores that are typically below 500 (per section) on the SAT or 21 on the ACT, admit students with average high school grades below C who are in the top 65% of their class and usually admit 85% or more of their applicants.
- Competitive colleges, which have median freshman test scores between 500 and 572 on the SAT and between 21 and 23 on the ACT, require minimum high school grades that range from a B- to a C and accept between 75% and 85% of their applicants.
- Very competitive colleges, which have median freshman test scores between 573 and 619 on the SAT and 24 to 26 on the ACT, only accept students with high school GPAs of B- or higher and admit between one-half and three-quarters of their applicants.
- Highly competitive colleges, which have median freshman test scores between 620 and 654 on the SAT and 27 or 28 on the ACT, usually admit students with B to B+ high school GPAs and accept between one-third and one-half of their applicants.
- Most competitive colleges, which have median freshman test scores between 655 and 800 on the SAT and around 29 on the ACT, usually require a high school GPA of A to B+ and typically accept fewer than one-third of their applicants.
The AEI's analysis drew from data from 641 colleges and universities that had at least ten or more Hispanic students in the incoming classes of 1999, 2000 and 2001, for which IPEDS offered graduation-rate data for the classes of 2005, 2006 and 2007 (because the average student takes six years to earn a 4-year bachelor's degree, most completion rate statistics follow a six-year path).
Analyzing the percentage of Hispanic students in each of the above categories of schools, the AEI found that they're overrepresented in the least competitive categories as compared to the most competitive categories (see graph above). They had the highest presence in their cohort in 'competitive' colleges at 39 percent. The report indicates that this pattern is consistant with the 'undermatch' hypothesis put forward in a 2004 Pew study. The hypothesis states that disadvantaged students, particularly Hispanics, tend to choose schools that are less academically rigorous than those they're truly qualified to attend. Rather than increasing their success rates, this actually puts them at a disadvantage: Students who 'undermatch' are less likely to complete a bachelor's degree than their similarly qualified peers who attend a more selective school
From Rising to the Challenge, page 8.
The AEI's analysis of college graduation rates by type of school bore out this hypothesis. As the graph above indicates, there's a gap of 6 to 8.5 percentage points in white and Hispanic graduation rates at every level. As predicted, Hispanic completion rates increase as schools become more selective.
However, there's more than the 'undermatch' effect at work here. A closer look at the data showed a fairly large range of in graduation rates between institutions at the same level of selectivity. Yet certain schools have consistently higher Hispanic completion rates: A competitive student enrolled at the school with the highest Hispanic graduation rate is seven times more likely to receive a bachelor's degree than a student at the school with the lowest rate.
In trying to determine what makes a school more effective at graduating Hispanic students, the report also looks at 'Hispanic Serving Institutions' (HSIs), defined as those schools where Hispanic students make up 25% or more of their total full-time undergraduate enrollment. Although there's no official federal list of HSIs, the AEI was able to examine 55 institutions that could be coded by selectivity and are listed by Excelencia in Education as HSIs. They found that while the completion gap is smaller at these institutions, overall, HSIs tend to have lower graduation rates for both Hispanic and white students. The AEI suggests that the smaller completion gap is not due to higher success rates with Hispanic students, but simply lower success rates with white students.
So if even HSIs are struggling to raise Hispanic completion rates, what is making some institutions more successful? To try to answer this question, the AEI interviewed administrators at eight schools. Four of the schools performed far better than others in their selectivity category and four performed far worse than their peer institutions. All had significant cohorts of Hispanic students, averaging more than 40 incoming Hispanic students per year.
Based on their interviews, the AEI set out the following conditions for improving Hispanic completion rates:
A high level of institutional commitment.
Schools that are committed to high levels of retention for all students are best able to maintain and improve the percentage of Hispanic students who earn a bachelor's degree.
Better consumer information.
Hispanic students and families often lack information about the costs of college as well as college culture and practices, which can lead to the aforementioned 'undermatch' effect. Efforts to inform prospective students about which schools are in their reach, academically and financially, as well as which schools have a better track record with Hispanic students seems to lead to better matching and increased graduation rates.
A focus on retention and graduation rates.
Simply disseminating information is only the first step - schools must then focus on ensuring the students remain enrolled, engaged and on the path toward a degree.
Incentives for institutional improvement.
The AEI argues that state and federal aid dollars should be tied to whether schools are meeting meaningful performance metrics. The HSI designation should be augmented to reflect higher standards for Hispanic education, not simply higher numbers of Hispanic students, marking an institution for special funding and incentivizing schools to increase their completion rates.
These practices seem like they would benefit the entire education community as they raise Hispanic graduation rates. Committing schools to reaching out to underrepresented groups and improving retention and completion rates for all students will bring us closer to the 2020 goal - and with a group of graduates who more accurately reflect our nation's diversity.