The College Graduation Gap Can Be Shrunk

New reports show exactly how it can happen, and which schools are already doing it.

By Julianne Hing Aug 10, 2010

When President Obama gave an education speech at UT Austin yesterday, he mentioned the racial disparities in already dismal U.S. college graduation rates. "Over a third of America’s college students and over half of our minority students don’t earn a degree, even after six years," Obama told the crowd.

There were no cheers, but there weren’t any gasps either. Parfait-like stratification of racial groups in every sphere of the higher education world, from access to performance, graduation rates and debt, is nothing new. The national graduation rate for black undergrads is 20 points lower than that of white students. And less than half of the Latino students who go to four-year colleges graduate within six years; about 60 percent of white students graduate within the same time frame.

But two new reports from Education Trust make the case that such entrenched inequities are by no means inevitable, or intractable. Researchers Mamie Lynch and Jennifer Engle dug into graduation data from four-year colleges and universities across the country and found schools that have actually eliminated their graduation rate disparities. They called out University of North Carolina, Greensboro; University of California, Riverside and University of North Carolia, Charlotte as three institutions that had eliminated their white-black graduation disparities. The graduation rates for black and white students hovered at around 65 percent at these schools.

The researchers attributed these gains to a few policy initiatives that stemmed from a commitment at the administration level to ensuring the success of students of color. Successful schools tended to recruit large enough numbers of students of color so they’d comprise "critical mass." Their retention and success became integrated into the larger fabric of the school culture. Schools had been able to institute early-notification systems so that counselors and peer mentors could intervene when a student was having academic trouble. UNC-Charlotte had instituted a counseling program to specifically meet the needs of black male students.

There were, of course, schools whose graduation gaps exceeded the national average. Wayne State University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Cal State Chico: we see you. At the University of Akron in Ohio, white students weren’t doing great–only 24 percent graduated in six years–but just one in ten black students did.

But the lesson isn’t just that what works for white students is what will work for everyone else. These reports suggest that an explicit commitment to students of color helps create a supportive, academically rigorous culture that meets students where they are: students of color are often first-generation college students who didn’t always have the economic and academic advantages of their white peers. Aggressive recruiting and intentional support systems are what work, and this data shows that the solutions to closing the college graduation gap aren’t elusive. Schools just have to want it enough.