Black Colleges Work To Increase Graduation Rates

Under renewed scrutiny about lackluster graduation rates, a group of historically black college presidents is pushing for new assessment tools they say will better capture student outcomes.

While details remain sparse, a report to be published Wednesday by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund suggests that the six-year graduation rate as measured by federal data should be replaced with a new model. Echoing complaints often registered by community college leaders, the report, “Making the Grade: Improving Degree Attainment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs),” argues that federal data fail to capture the successes of transfer students and part-time students who often attend the institutions. Moreover, the data fail to account for the fact that many HBCU students face additional barriers to success, including lower socioeconomic status and the need for remediation, the report notes.

HBCUs have a history of serving underserved and nontraditional students, which places the institutions at a disadvantage when compared to other colleges under the six-year graduation rate standard, according to Mary Sias, president of Kentucky State University and a co-author of the report.

“You’re not comparing apples to apples,” Sias said on a conference call Monday. “If you gave me the same students, I would be able to do as well or better than the other universities that are majority-serving institutions.”

Nonetheless, the six-year graduation rate has emerged as the federal standard for comparing very different institutions. And when viewed through that lens, HBCUs often don’t appear to be doing well.

“I don’t think a six year graduation rate is really giving us the full picture,” said Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the report.

The push from HBCU presidents for different assessment tools comes at a time when some express concern about the future of these institutions. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s recent call to merge the state’s three public historically black colleges, for instance, was viewed by many as a threat to the state’s HBCUs.

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