How to Graduate More Black Students

Dozens of colleges are doing it, and a new report outlines how.

Ric Feld / AP

Updated on March 23, 2016

Many more black students are graduating from college than a decade ago. According to a new report from The Education Trust, a nonprofit that focuses on improving outcomes for low-income students of color, completion rates for African Americans increased at nearly 70 percent of the four-year public schools that raised their overall graduations rates between 2003 and 2013. But at the same time, a third of the colleges the group studied that had rising overall graduation rates actually had stagnant or declining graduation rates for black students.

More than 50 schools have also reduced graduation gaps between black and white students, including Texas Tech University and Ohio State University. The report outlines a series of efforts that, if scaled effectively, might help more colleges boost graduation rates for black students, which, at about 47 percent in 2013 at public universities, remain significantly lower than the 65 percent graduation rate for white students. “These institutions illustrate that demographics aren’t destiny and that what colleges do with and for their students plays a pivotal role in student success,” write the authors.

At Ohio State, where the black graduation rate has climbed from about 42 percent in 2003 to around 73 percent in 2013, the gap between white and black students has shrunk by more than 8 points. In other words, white and black students are graduating at higher rates than they used to, but blacks have made gains at a faster pace. As the report outlines, the school connects with low-income, first-generation potential students, most of them black, when they are in middle school through the Young Scholars Program, which points them toward the classes and study habits they will need to succeed in college. If they enroll at Ohio State, they get an annual scholarship, attend a summer bridge program and a study-skills course to ease the transition to school, and meet with coaches and mentors regularly. There are off-campus weekend retreats, conversations about race on campus, and a research center that brings black students from around the country to campus to share best practices and challenges.

Texas Tech created a program called Mentor Tech, which focuses on connecting students of color with faculty and local churches and community groups. “The mentors we match them with commit to assisting them with navigating the system, sharing the unwritten rules of culture, connecting them with resources, being that listening ear, being that caring arm, and sometimes being that voice of correction to help them bounce back from failure,” Cory Powell, the director of the program, told Education Trust. The graduation rate for black students on campus is 19 points higher at 56 percent than it was 10 years ago.

Programs that help students succeed clearly vary, but there is a common theme. They tend to espouse and reinforce the “you are not alone” idea, and the “you belong here” mantra, which is where upper-income kids with college-educated parents who have navigated the system before have long had a built-in advantage. While there are successful programs, such as the Posse Foundation, that operate nationally, they are difficult to scale in part because they are time-intensive and expensive. They often require human-to-human contact. As John Gomperts, the CEO and president of America’s Promise Alliance, told me last year when his organization released a report suggesting that connecting kids with adults who care can increase the likelihood they graduate, at-risk young people suffer from “a kind of relationship poverty.” They lack the “human guardrails” that exist for other kids. Building those up takes time and effort.

Many schools, Education Trust suggests, have a long way to go when it comes to helping black students graduate from college. Black students are often more challenged by serious disadvantages from their earliest years, and colleges are being asked to close gaps that they did not directly create. Black students are more likely than white students to attend highly segregated schools where poverty is the norm, for instance, and are less likely to have access to advanced placement courses. As Anthony Carnevale, the head of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Atlantic at a recent roundtable, “We still have separate but unequal education among the races.” But that doesn’t change the fact that 73 of the colleges that had rising graduation rates in general had stagnant or declining graduation rates for black students specifically. Nearly 30 of the schools saw declining graduation rates for black students.

And while six-year graduation rates at four-year public schools have climbed more than five percent for white students between 2003 and 2013, they’ve risen just two percent for black students, meaning the gap is still widening. “We have serious concerns that at too many institutions, equitable student success is an afterthought instead of a top-of-mind priority,” Andrew Nichols, the co-author of the report, said in a statement. At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, for example, the black-white graduation gap is greater than 20 points. In 2003, the report notes, the graduation rate was actually higher for black students, at 46 percent, than for white students, at 38 percent. In 2013, the graduation rate for black students slipped to 31 percent, while it rose to 54 percent for white students. The university suggested in a statement to The Atlantic that it is “providing a greater level of access to black students.” The school said it has taken a series of steps to improve outcomes in recent years, including redesigning certain courses, strengthening mentoring programs, and implementing a summer bridge program.

Nichols said that while it is true some schools invest in expensive and time-intensive interventions to increase graduation rates, there are less costly options that can have an impact. School presidents have to make equity a priority, he said. Schools can dive into the data on courses with high dropout rates, for instance, and either identify better instructors or add supplemental instruction for students who need it. “There are a lot of innovative ways that schools can really, really move the needle on student success,” he said, “so we’re really not buying the excuses.”