How Some Colleges Are Improving Black Graduation Rates

Exterior view of San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, June 30, 2011. The school is one of the state schools that were affected by the new state budget. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (National Journal)

While college-degree attainment for black students remains persistently low, some colleges and universities are implementing programs that are helping boost graduation rates, a new study shows.

About half of the public and private schools between 2004 and 2010 either improved their graduation rates or closed the attainment gaps for black students by an average of 8 percentage points.

(RELATED Interactive Chart: Institutions in the African-American Gainer Sample)

The top-gainer universities boosted graduation rates without reducing black college enrollment, according to the report  "Advancing to Completion: Increasing Degree Attainment by Improving Graduation Rates and Closing the Gaps for African-American Students."

The modest gains, the authors of the report argue, show that universities can reverse the trend of low academic completion regardless of their starting point.

"Our nation will be well-served if more colleges and universities validate and replicated the equity-minded policies of those institutions that are getting it done," according to the report.

Here are some key programs and initiatives from schools that have closed the graduation gaps or have made gains in boosting degree-completion rates:

  • San Jose State University and California State Long Beach, among the top 25 schools that improved graduation rates for minority students, implemented programs, such as the Graduation Initiative and the African American Initiative, to boost graduation rates and cut the completion gap in half for minority students.
  •  The State University at Albany in New York holds regular meetings between academic and student-affairs staff to identity early those students at risk of dropping out.
  • Students at Virginia Commonwealth University follow a cohort curriculum in which the cohort take the same classes with the same professor, and get specialized support services. The university has special programs, such as mentoring programs for black students in science, technology, engineering, and math areas. Joseph Marolla, vice provost for instruction and student success, told the study's authors that small classes and cohort learning has reduced the proportion of students who fail, drop out, or withdraw from courses.
  • At the start of each semester school officials at the University of Southern California seek out the students who are not yet registered for the upcoming semester, and pairs students with the services they need to register. The private school, which has closed the graduation gap between whites and minority students, created a database where academic advisers from various majors and minors could access the academic record of each student as well as his or her four-year plan, which is audited periodically. 

Still, the national graduation rates for black students remain worrisome. Black college completion rates were either stagnant or dipped slightly during the six-year period.  For instance, 40.6 percent of blacks in 2010 completed an undergraduate degree within six years, compared with 41.2 percent in 2004.

The top private universities with increases in graduation rates, between 2004-2010:

1. Northwood University (Texas): up 24.7 percentage points, to 40 percent.

2. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York: up 23.7 percentage points, to 87 percent.

3. Tiffin University, Ohio: up 22.0 percentage points, to 34.8 percent.

4. Andrews University, Michigan: up 22.1 percentage points, to 65 percent.

5. University of the Arts, Pennsylvania: up 21.8 percentage points, to 64.7 percent.

The top public universities that saw graduation rates increase:

  1. California University of Pennsylvania: up 33 percentage points, to 60.5 percent.
  2. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona: up 29.6 percent, to 53.9 percent.
  3. Towson University: up 22.8 percent, to 74 percent.
  4. Appalachian State University: up 22.1 percent points, to 64.6 percent.
  5. University of North Carolina-Wilmington: up 21.4 percent, to 61.4 percent. 

Top eight private and public universities that have closed the graduation gap:

  1. Andrews University
  2. Pepperdine University
  3. Harvard University
  4. University of Miami
  5. SUNY College at Old Westbury
  6. Stony Brook University
  7. University of California (Riverside)
  8. Radford University