Black Success, Black Failure

Confirming what college administrators have known for years, Education Sector has released a report based on U.S. Department of Education figures detailing huge gaps between the college graduation rates of white students and those of blacks. The gap (measured by failure to graduate within six years from a four-year institution) averages about 20 percent, although it can soar in excess of 40 percent in a few cases.

These are dispiriting figures, but they need to be approached in context. First of all, as the report notes, only slightly over half – 57 percent – of students of any race who enroll in four-year colleges manage to make it to graduation within six years. This figure suggest that a traditional-style uninterrupted college education isn’t for everyone – and in fact many dropouts (although their numbers aren’t tracked in the Education Sector report) finish their degrees part-time or after several years in the work-force, as the burgeoning number of institutions devoted to part-time education indicates). White students do fare better in traditional education, according to a study published last year in the journal Blacks in Higher Education: 63 percent of whites graduate in six years, compared to only 43 percent of blacks (although the percentage of graduating black students has been ticking upwards over the past few years, the study noted).

Blacks who attend elite private universities – Harvard et al., – have extremely high graduation rates that approach those of whites, but that is probably to be expected, because those schools have highly selective admissions standards for all their students and typically graduate more than 90 percent of them. And it is safe to say that the blacks at the top private schools are strongly motivated academically and have few distracting financial worries thanks to scholarships or their upper-middle-class families.


Blacks at lower-tier private universities and many state universities that lack aid packages, even the prestigious ones, fare worse. The graduation gap at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus is 19 percent, and at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus it’s 22 percent. Still, some 68 percent of blacks manage to graduate at Michigan and 51 percent at Indiana – both figures well above the national average for blacks.

Indeed, one of the implicit conclusions of the study is that black young people who aren’t Ivy League material would do well to select a state university whose ranking may not be at the top but which has a strong academic and student culture designed to provide intensive support to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. At several of those schools black graduation rates actually exceed those of whites. One is Florida State University, where 72 percent of entering blacks graduate within four years compared to 69 percent of whites. Florida State offers an intensive summer academic program for students in its Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement and funds extra sections of freshman math courses with smaller sizes. Georgia Tech more than a decade ago adopted a Challenge Program with a rigorous five-week summer course of math and chemistry for entering blacks and Hispanics plus intensive academic monitoring that pushed the graduation rate for blacks above 70 percent. George Tech is now famous for its high numbers of black engineering graduates and doctorates for blacks. George Mason University, a state school in Northern Virginia known for the free-market ethos of many of its faculty members, also boasts higher graduates for blacks than whites (the black graduation rate is comparable to that at Florida State, even though the university eschews affirmative-action programs and serves mostly commuters. Black graduates of George Mason (as this blog suggests) attribute their successes to a strong student culture that takes pride in achievement.

The worst place a black student can attend in terms of graduation prospects seems to be a historically black college. The Blacks in Higher Education study of 2007 noted that the majority of those schools had graduation rates below (sometimes well below) the national average, with the bottom-ranked University of the District of Columbia graduating only 7 percent of its students in four years. The journal was fairly blunt about why this is the case: Although historically black universities tend to be poorly funded, “probably the most important explanation for the high dropout rate at the black colleges is the fact that large numbers of African-American HBCU students do not come to college with strong academic preparation and study habits” – which translates into a student culture of failure. Black young people thinking about college would seem to be far better off at Florida State, Georgia Tech, or George Mason – unless, of course, they can get into Harvard.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

10 thoughts on “Black Success, Black Failure

  1. Great article.
    Laurie,
    I would be very interested in hearing about the program for your children. I have an 11 year old with a strong interest in math and engineering.
    Thanks!

  2. Dear Blair,
    The answer is to implement a college curriculum prior to becoming an adult. I have found a way for my children to obtain a Bachelor of Science Degree (Chemistry) by 17 years old. We just have to make good use of the time that our children have when they are not in school. Last I checked for the state that I live in, students were only required to be in school for 185 days. What are we doing with the students for the other half of the year?
    This was a very informative article. I would be interested to find out what the statistics are for 2011.

  3. Again and again and again I think about these difficulties. Actually it was not even yesterday that I last thought about this very situation. Frankly, what is the answer though?

  4. I should say the greatest motivational act one person can do for another is to listen. Or possibly it’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

  5. What a great idea! It’s a sad but true fact that the kids often are not getting a breakfast before they’re rushed off to school and then they gotta go on empty whilst trying to use their brain power. Again, great idea and thanks for sharing the post.

  6. Exactly what I was looking for, thanks for putting up. “Every failure is a step to success…” by William Whewell.

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