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Being Fair About Graduation Rates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

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More than any other topic related to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), graduation rates are the subject of constant media attention -- especially those pieces penned by op-ed writers. Critics writing for The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education and even The Huffington Post lambast HBCUs for their graduation rates.

Believe me, I'm concerned about national graduation rates, as well. At 55.5 percent (six-year) nationally, we could be doing a lot better. However, HBCUs get unfair treatment when it comes to discussions of graduation rates, and here is why:

  • Most HBCUs are in Southern states. All but four of the Southern states have graduation rates below the national average. In addition to a number of other factors, many students in Southern states lack access to high-quality public schools. Regional context matters.
  • The majority of HBCU students are low-income, first-generation, and Pell-Grant-eligible. Research tells us that these students are less likely to graduate. If one looks at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) with student bodies that are similar to the various HBCUs, one finds similar graduation rates.
  • The majority of HBCUs enroll students with lower SAT scores, and although I'm no fan of these tests, they are the only proxy we have for academic preparation besides high school grades. If institutions increase their selectivity and only accept students who are superbly prepared for college, graduation rates increase. How about comparing HBCU graduation rates with those institutions enrolling similarly prepared students?
  • HBCUs are underfunded and have been severely underfunded since their creation after the Civil War. With some exceptions, those colleges and universities with rich endowments have the highest graduation rates. These institutions can afford to provide all the programs and services needed to ensure the retention of students. How would HBCUs fare with equal funding?
  • The African-American college graduation rate nationwide is 41 percent. At HBCUs the rate drops to 37 percent. This statistic leads critics to claim that HBCUs must not be contributing significantly to the education of black students, or, worse yet, that they're harming them. Again, graduation rates at all institutions should be higher, but one must consider the individual characteristics of HBCU students. Some researchers have found that HBCUs graduate students at the same rate as PWIs and in fact add value to students who are low-income and underprepared.
  • HBCUs are constantly compared with Ivy League institutions when it comes to graduation rates -- a comparison that would make most of the nation's colleges and universities look pretty bad. Few institutions have the resources of Harvard or Princeton. What are the underlying reasons for these comparisons?

Instead of singling out HBCUs as a whole when discussing graduation rates, the media, scholars and op-ed writers should tackle the underlying issues that have long led to inequity in higher education -- issues such as unequal funding and lack of adequate K-12 preparation. And, when discussions are had, they should compare HBCUs to like institutions with similar student populations. It's important to be critical of institutions when they are not graduating students, but it's also important to be fair in those criticisms.

Lastly, once the comparisons are fair, HBCU leaders need to look closely at their graduation rates and make it a priority to increase them at a steady pace. Benchmarking against similarly populated institutions (be they HBCUs or PWIs) that have achieved better graduation success can be an effective method of making significant change. The best way to keep critics quiet is to show significant gains in student success. HBCUs can be true to their historic mission of serving the underserved and also be shining examples of the best strategies for educating African-American students.