Education Trust Reports on Graduation Rates and Minorities ... and Which Schools Are Doing Best

“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.” So says Jennifer Engle, assistant director of higher education at the Education Trust and co-author, with Mamie Lynch, a higher education research and policy analyst, of two reports dealing with minority student success.

When Engle says “For both moral and economic reasons,” she is emphasizing what many others have determined. Even the hardhearted who might not be willing to improve minority education because it is the right thing to do must be persuaded of the imperative to do so if America is to compete in a global economy.

The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine

Big Gaps, Small Gaps: Some Colleges and Universities Do Better than Others in Graduating Hispanic Students and Big Gaps, Small Gaps: Some Colleges and Universities Do Better than Others in Graduating African- American Students, both released in August  010, go beyond looking at national college-graduation averages. Instead they examine disaggregated sixyear graduation rates at hundreds of America’s public and private colleges and universities.

The overall national average of students earning bachelor’s degrees within six years (of enrollment) is 57 percent, a proportion already troublesome. When minority student graduation rates are added to the mix, the numbers are more dismal. Nationally, 60 percent of White students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years while only 49 percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of African-Americans do so.

These national averages tell only a limited story. Big Gaps, Small Gaps, using several years of data from College Results Online, a Webbased tool that presents graduation rates by race, ethnicity and gender for four-year colleges and universities throughout the United States, and identifies institutions having remarkable success in graduating minority students.

What do these institutions do that institutions with poorer graduation results are not doing? The usefulness of such an analysis is obvious – those that are eliminating or minimizing ethnic/racial gaps should be carefully studied and widely imitated. The practices these stellar institutions employ can be a model for other institutions.

Too many colleges have large gaps between White students and minority students in their graduation rates. Indeed, the report notes that at nearly two-thirds of the colleges and universities in the study, fewer than half the African-American students earn a degree. Likewise at public colleges and universities where the great majority of Hispanic students attend, more than 60 percent of those institutions graduate fewer than 50 percent of Hispanic students in six years.

What both reports make clear is that these large gaps are not inevitable. Institutions with a similar student body and similarities across other crucial dimensions vary in their student success rates.

Exemplifying this point are two peer institutions, the University of Illinois-Chicago and the University of North Carolina (UNC)- Greensboro. At the former, there is a 22 percent point gap in success rates between Whites and African-American students. The degree completion rate over a six-year period for Whites is 52 percent; and for African-Americans, 30 percent. UNC-Greensboro, on the other hand, graduates 56 percent of African-American students and 51 percent of White students within six years.

How can we account for such discrepancies? In an Aug. 9 press release, the vice provost of UNCGreensboro, Alan Boyette, attributed UNC’s equitable graduation rates to three guiding factors: student success is part of the school’s mission; helping students graduate rather than recruiting new students is cost-effective; UNC has a systemwide focus on student retention and graduation goals.

The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education Magazine

Disparities in graduation rates can also be seen between comparable small and private universities. Christian University in Lubbock, Texas, with 15 percent Hispanic students, graduates only 22 percent of these students while it graduates 46 percent of its White students. Woodbury University enrolls 31 percent Hispanic students and graduates 62 percent, a higher percentage than that of its White students.

Hispanic student achievement is critical to our nation’s ability to compete in a global economy, given that Hispanics will constitute nearly one-third of the work force in the year 2050. Currently, Hispanics are the least-prepared educationally of all groups in America to contribute to and benefit from an economy for which higher education is a prerequisite. At this time, only 13 percent of young adult Hispanics have bachelor’s degrees compared with 21 percent of African-Americans and 39 percent of Whites.

The report notes that although colleges do need to enroll more Hispanics to close the degree completion gap, it is equally important that they improve the graduation rates of their current Hispanic students.

Private institutions graduate higher proportions of Hispanic students, among colleges and universities studied in this report. However, the great majority of Hispanic students, 80 percent, attend public colleges and universities. As mentioned earlier, more than 60 percent of these public institutions graduate less than half of their Hispanic students. Even worse, almost 25 percent of these institutions graduate less than 35 percent of their Hispanic students within a six-year period.

Many public and private institutions graduate White and Hispanic students at comparable rates. These institutions vary in all kinds of ways. They vary considerably in terms of selectivity. For example, Washington University in St. Louis is highly selective, with a median SAT score of 1450 points for entering freshmen. Students at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx, N.Y., on the other hand, are admitted with SAT scores around 940.

Additionally, institutions with comparable White-Hispanic graduation rates vary in terms of size, ranging from small private institutions with fewer than 1,200 enrollees to large public colleges and universities with enrollments of 24,000. They also differ in the makeup of their student bodies. Eleven institutions are designated HSIs because they are accredited degree-granting institutions at which at least 25 percent of the full-time equivalent undergraduate population is Hispanic. Some of the HSIs are concentrated in states with high-density Hispanic populations; others are scattered around the United States.

Some institutions have shown consistently good Hispanic student graduation rates over time while others have made significant progress over time. Florida International University (FIU), located in Miami, and the University of San Francisco in California have both had consistent success graduating Hispanic students. Looking at the University of San Francisco graduation rates for a seven-year period, you see that its Hispanic student graduation rates are above the national average and that, during that period, it has never had a gap larger than positive 2.6 points. Florida International University (FIU), an HSI with a student body nearly 66 percent Hispanic, has shown Hispanic student graduation rates higher than those of Whites for seven years in a row. Both FIU and the University of San Francisco are clear signs of what institutional commitment and effort can mean to student success rates.

Western Oregon University is an example of an institution that has made significant progress over time with its Hispanic student graduation rates. Only 8 percent of its student body is Hispanic. In 2002, the six-year graduation rate for Hispanic students was 36 percent. In 2008, more than half of its Hispanic students graduated over a six-year period, completely closing the White-to-Hispanic graduation gap. Again, commitment and effort paid off.

Among the colleges and universities with the largest White-to-Hispanic graduation gaps are institutions that vary widely in their missions, selectivity, size and diversity. Some have poor graduation rates across the board, for all students, while others have fairly good graduation rates for White students but poor rates for Hispanic or African-American students. The “big gap” schools, in particular, can benefit considerably by studying the practices of the “small gap” institutions.

There are many lessons to be learned from the top performers in academic success since their achievement is a function of their proactive practices and policies.

Take, for example, St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, a Hispanic-Serving Institution with a student body roughly one-third Hispanic. In a six-year period, 58 percent of Hispanic students earn a degree along with 56 percent of White students.

Sister Donna Jurick, the provost at St. Edward’s, says that the mission of the college, which is to serve a wide variety of students, drives its efforts toward equity in the admissions process. As a Catholic institution, striving for equity fits in with the church’s commitment to social justice. In admissions, she says, St. Edward’s works diligently to identify and admit ambitious, talented students whose secondary education may have been deficient. She says the institution sets high expectations for all students it admits and teaches them that “they have the right to the best education possible.” “We want to provide access to students who are highly motivated but didn’t have the same opportunities in high school. ... We see their potential.”

St. Edward’s identifies students who are struggling academically very early in the semester, with professors sending progress reports to students’ advisers after three weeks. Advisers reach out to students, encouraging them to use the college’s support services, such as tutoring and/or the writing center. The support services staff then report back to the faculty members about their students’ progress.

Loyola Marymount University, the most diverse Jesuit college in the nation, also has very small graduation gaps among groups of students. The college makes a concerted effort to recruit Hispanic students and uses leading indicators to track students, particularly Hispanics. It, too, has early warning systems that alert staff that students are struggling academically, and then, as at St. Edward’s, early intervention follows. Graduation rates are very good. About 20 percent of its undergraduate population is Latino. Almost 80 percent of these students graduate within six years. White students have similar success rates at Loyola Marymount University, and these rates are higher than the national average for any racial or ethnic student group.

Small private universities are not the only institutions achieving graduation success. The University of California-Riverside, a large public research university with a student body comprised of about one-fourth Latino students, also has small graduation-rate gaps. White students graduate at a rate of 62 percent, and Latinos have a 63 percent graduation rate within six years – again, a higher rate than the national average.

The success of these model institutions boils down to three fundamental factors: strong leadership at the top, focus on data-driven actions and interventions, and proactive retention efforts. College presidents and high-level administrators must create a campus culture in which everyone at the college takes responsibility for student success. Recruiting minority students must be a high priority in order to create a diverse student body. Finally, early intervention based on data that identifies students who are struggling has a big impact on getting students back on track.