When a 43 Percent Graduation Rate Means Success

Historically black colleges and universities are doing a better job serving students than headline graduation rates show. But that may no longer be good enough.

Elizabeth City State University's enrollment is declining, it's struggling to absorb state budget cuts, and just 43 percent of students graduate in six years. But while this historically black college in northeastern North Carolina seems like a poster child for the woes of higher education, it's actually an overachiever: Students graduate at about twice the rate statistical models would predict, given the demographic the university serves, according to The Washington Monthly's 2013 college rankings.

Historically black colleges and universities — or HBCUs — typically have lower-than-average graduation rates, which is not surprising given the large numbers of low-income, often academically underprepared students they serve. But demographics aren't destiny. Within the educational sector, there's significant variation in how many entering freshmen go on to earn degrees.

As state and federal legislators pressure colleges to raise graduation rates, HBCUs can't afford not to invest in strategies that can help students succeed. "The public's grown kind of weary of excuses for not graduating at a significant enough rate," says Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, an organization representing 47 publicly supported HBCUs. Twenty-five states, including North Carolina, have already tweaked their funding formulas to reward colleges for metrics like on-time graduation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nationally, just 59 percent of all first-time college students, attending full-time, graduate in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rate for African-American students is significantly lower — just 39.5 percent. Across four-year HBCUs, the six-year graduation rate is 35 percent, according to the United Negro College Fund.

America's 100 historically black colleges have always served students who are underrepresented in higher education. Today, 80 percent of HBCU students are African-American, and about 70 percent of students come from families with low enough incomes to qualify for federal Pell Grants.

Given that they serve disproportionate shares of disadvantaged students, HBCUs actually perform pretty well. After controlling for Pell funding and SAT scores, a 2012 UNCF study found that HBCUs do a better job ensuring that low-income students graduate than other schools. The institutions tend to fare well in The Washington Monthly's college rankings, which weigh graduation rates by taking into account such factors as the affluence and academic preparation of students.

And within the sector, some colleges and universities are doing much better than others. Forty percent of students at Mississippi's Jackson State University graduate in four years, compared with just 12 percent at Texas Southern University, according to The Education Trust. Elizabeth City State University has a graduation rate 10 points higher than that of Virginia's Norfolk State University, an hour's drive away.

At a recent National Journal event, Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, explained three things all colleges can do to increase low-income and minority-student achievement: Institution leaders have to make student academic success a primary focus, use data to figure out when students need support, and redesign introductory courses to make it easier for students to learn necessary material and progress.

Those strategies work for HBCUs, too. Data collection helped Jackson State University realize that it needed to broaden its focus on retention, says Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education and education finance policy at the Education Trust. "Not just between their first and second year — where there's a big dropoff — but between years two, three, four, five, and six," he says. "Because as many students will drop out between years two and six as will between years one and two."

Elizabeth City State University hasn't invested in any particularly high-tech data tracking systems. But it does collect information on student performance three weeks into every course — before the midterm — to identify students who may be falling behind. ECSU has also invested in services like special advising for freshmen and a mentorship program for black men. And like other HBCUs, the university tries to create a nurturing environment for students. "We really encourage students to belong," says Deborah Branch, associate vice chancellor for student affairs. "We know that if students are connected to the campus and campus life, they will really persist."

Although many ECSU students enter academically unprepared for college, they usually drop out for financial rather than academic reasons, says Barbaina Houston-Black, the school's dean of student life. Tuition and fees, at around $6,000 for state residents, are almost entirely covered by maximum Pell grants. Seventy-two percent of ECSU undergraduates receive Pell funding. But students often struggle to cover their living expenses, and they may be under pressure to keep working in order to help financially support their families.

By keeping students on track academically, ECSU can help protect students' continuing eligibility for state and federal grants. But there's not much the college can do to help students stay in school if they lose eligibility. ECSU has some money for institutional scholarships, but not much.

ECSU's current enrollment and budget challenges illustrate how vulnerable many HBCUs are to policy changes. State budget cuts strained the institution's limited finances and led to a $5 million funding shortfall this year. Enrollment has dropped 25 percent since 2009, partly because the University of North Carolina system has been slowly raising admissions requirements. As of last fall, applicants need a GPA of 2.5 and at least a 17 composite score on the ACT or an 800 combined score on the critical reading and math sections of the SAT. To put that in context, in 2013, the average African-American SAT test taker earned an 860 combined score on those sections. HBCUs face stiff competition from other institutions that can offer students better financial-aid packages.

If HBCUs don't start raising graduation rates, they're going to face declining state support under performance-funding formulas. And that could leave a historically underserved student population with even fewer options.