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.