Black Student Success: Graduation Gaps Persist Nationwide, but Some Institutions Are Exemplars
The gap between the number of black and white students graduating from four-year institutions has widened, says a recent report by the Education Trust, “A Look at Black Student Success: Identifying Top- and Bottom-Performing Institutions.” The report examines data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System’s Graduation Rate Survey by the National Center for Education Statistics. Most of the report focuses on graduation and enrollment rates at 676 four-year institutions, not including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and for-profit institutions, which are examined in separate sections.
While the gap between black and white students is widening nationwide, it was “refreshing to find” that several institutions had little or no gap, said Andrew Nichols, director of higher education research and data analytics at the Education Trust and one of the report’s coauthors. “I think it’s important for administrators, particularly presidents and provosts, to understand that completion gaps that separate black students and white students can be closed.”
Though the Education Trust has studied black student success for several years, the report included unique findings about HBCUs. HBCUs serve “a very different demographic that is much more socioeconomically disadvantaged than any other type of institution—public, nonprofit, and private,” Nichols said. When comparing HBCUs with other institutions that serve similar demographics, “you actually see HBCUs have higher completion rates for their black students.”
Nichols acknowledged that closing graduation gaps is difficult for any institution. “Oftentimes people will ask the question, ‘Well what exactly should I do to improve outcomes on our campus or close gaps on our campus?’ And our answer is, ‘There is no specific recipe.’ Generally, we know what works, but what administrators should do on each campus may vary depending on the specific challenges students are facing.”
The report suggests that administrators study the strategies adopted by top-performing institutions, “set clear improvement goals, mine their data to help identify problems and refine practices, and optimize the use of whatever resources they have.”
The Success and Access Gap Between Black and White Students
- The report found that 45.4 percent of black students nationwide graduated within six years compared to 64.7 percent of white students (a 19.3 percentage-point gap). However, the average graduation gap between black and white students within the same institutions is 13.5 percentage points (see fig. 1). The report attributed this discrepancy to “divergent enrollment patterns. . . . Far too few Black students attend selective institutions, which typically have higher graduation rates, and far too many end up at the least selective institutions, where few students complete in six years.”
- While just 25.6 percent of all black first-year students attend the most selective institutions—those with SAT scores in the fourth quartile, which have the highest graduation rate for black students (70.2 percent)—39.8 percent of white first-year students attend these institutions and 80.5 percent graduate (see fig. 2).
- At the “least selective schools” (with SAT scores in the first quartile), 30.9 percent of black students and 44.5 percent of white students graduate within six years. At these institutions, black first-year students enroll at more than double the rate of white students, 19.6 percent to 9.3 percent.
- While the gaps in enrollment at selective institutions are partly because “Black K–12 students are more likely than their White counterparts to attend underfunded schools, be taught by inexperienced and out-of-field teachers, and be assigned less rigorous coursework,” the report also cites research pointing to “a pattern where high-performing, low-income, and underrepresented minority students tend to apply to and attend colleges” that are less selective than they might qualify to attend.
Students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities Succeed at a Higher Rate
- HBCUs teach a large portion (20 percent) of the “first-time, full-time Black students” that attend four-year institutions, and they “play a critical role in providing Black students with access to four-year, postsecondary opportunities,” the report says.
- At least 40 percent of first-year students receive Pell Grants at every HBCU in the study (a strong indicator of low-income status). However, just “45 percent of the 676 non-HBCUs that were included in the larger study sample enroll a similar or higher percentage of low-income freshmen.”
- While the six-year graduation rate at HBCUs (32.1 percent) is below the average rate (45.4 percent) of non-HBCU institutions, HBCUs have higher rates of black student success than schools that serve similar levels of low-income, Pell-receiving students.
- When examining completion rates at HBCU and non-HBCU institutions where 40 to 70 percent of first-year students are low-income, HBCUs outperform others 37.8 percent to 32.0 percent (see fig. 3).
Fourteen AAC&U Members Ranked among Top-Performing Institutions for Black Student Success
Did You Know?
The report identified eighteen “top-performers,” including fourteen AAC&U member institutions. Among other metrics, each top-performing institution had graduation rates for black students that were at least 10 percentage points higher than those at their peer institutions, as well as black/white graduation rate gaps that were less than or equal to 5 percentage points. The graduation rate for black students was higher than for white students at ten of the top-performing institutions.
Unless otherwise cited, all graphics and data in this article are included with the permission of the Education Trust from their report, “A Look at Black Student Success: Identifying Top- and Bottom-Performing Institutions.”