Leading by Example: Report Finds That Some Institutions Have Closed the Racial Gap in College Completion Rates

Aug 11, 2010

Nationally, a strong gap persists between white and racial and ethnic minority graduation rates at U.S. colleges and universities. But a recent analysis of college completion data by The Education Trust reveals that many institutions have closed the gap, while others are still failing to serve the needs of Hispanic and African American students.

Diverse Students

Is American Higher Education Failing Minority Students?

In the U.S., 57% of all undergraduates earn their bachelor's degrees within six years of enrolling in college. When you break that number down by race and ethnicity, a stark gap emerges: Sixty percent of white students earn their degree in six years, but only 49% of Latinos and 40% of African Americans do.

Lots of explanations for this disparity have been proposed. Some argue that the K-12 system fails to offer sufficient college preparation at minority-dominated public schools. Others point out that parents of Hispanic and African American students are less likely to have attended college, increasing the challenges their children will face navigating the higher education system. And in a recent study on the Hispanic completion gap, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) points out that Hispanic students tend to 'under match,' meaning that they choose to attend schools for which they're overqualified, which actually leads to a lower chance of success.

But both the AEI and, in a more recent study, The Education Trust, argue that the problem doesn't necessarily lie with the students. The AEI notes that certain schools have consistently higher Hispanic completion rates: A competitive Latino student enrolled at one of the schools with the highest Hispanic graduation rates is seven times more likely to receive a bachelor's degree than their peers enrolled at one of the schools with the lowest rates.

The Education Trust broadened these findings in a pair of reports released this week focusing on Hispanic and African American students. The organization analyzed several years of data from College Results Online, a website that allows anyone to view graduation rates by gender, race and ethnicity at 4-year institutions across the U.S. They found that some schools have minority completion gaps that even exceed the national average, whereas other schools have shrunk and even closed the national gap.

Students Gathering

Focusing On Student Retention

The Education Trust signaled out several schools that are out-performing their peers in closing the minority completion gap. For example, nearly two-thirds of the student population is Hispanic at Florida International University (FIU), which is listed as a 'Hispanic-serving institution' (HSI) by the AEI. Completion rates among Hispanic students at FIU have actually exceeded those of white students.

At Old Dominion University in Virginia, bout a quarter of the student population is African American, and black students here have historically had equal graduation rates to their white peers. In 2008, 56% of African American students at Old Dominion finished their degrees in six years, well above the national average.

And the University of California Riverside (UCR) stands out as having higher-than-average completion rates for all three groups: White students have a graduation rate of 62% at UCR, and Latino and African American students have even higher success rates at 63% and 67%, respectively.

The Trust sought to find out what makes these institutions different from schools like Detroit's Wayne State University, where fewer than one in ten African American students graduate in six years but white students have a completion rate that's over four times higher. The difference can't be attributed to demographics - in the current study, researchers compared institutions with similar institutional and student characteristics and still found dramatically different gaps. For example, the University of Illinois at Chicago has a 22 percentage point gap in completion rates between white and African American students. But their peer institution, the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, boasts a 56% six-year graduation rate for black students, which exceeds their 51% six-year graduation rate for white students.

Alan Boyette, Vice Provost at UNC-Greensboro, attributes their success to three principles that guide their operations:

  1. Student success is part of the school's core mission.
  2. Helping students graduate is more cost-effective than recruiting new students.
  3. The entire UNC system focuses on student retention and graduation goals.

The Education Trust observes that these principles have led UNC-Greensboro to develop programs targeted at minority and other underserved populations. And what makes these programs effective is the school's 'heavy' reliance on data to determine the success or failure of student retention and graduation programs. When programs aren't working they're discontinued. When they are, they're expanded.

Success rates at UCR are attributed to similar principles: A focus on data collection (and utilization), strong leadership and retention efforts carried out by each college at the university. And the American Enterprise Institute came to similar conclusions when analyzing schools that have exceptional Hispanic completion rates. The schools shared a high level of institutional commitment to retaining and graduating all students.

College Graduates

It's clear that if we're ever going to close the minority completion gap at a national level, schools across the country need to renew their commitment to serving students. Institutions need to strengthen retention and graduation efforts, and increase data collection practices to ensure that programs are working at the student level. Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at The Education Trust, notes that 'Higher education institutions that place success at the heart of their mission make it a realistic goal for every student. For both moral and economic reasons, colleges need to ensure that their institutions work better for all of the students they serve.'

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