How Can More Black People Finish College?

Ask Dr. Lomax: It's not just about getting in but about getting that degree. These programs help.

(Special to The Root) —

“What is being done to help black college students actually finish college?” Ellis Anthony Sutton Jr.

You are asking exactly the right question. For a long time, people defined our national education goal as going to college. Now I think everybody is coming to understand that our goal has to be finishing college and earning a degree. In an economy in which people are likely, over the course of a working life, not only to change jobs frequently but to change careers, completing a four-year education and receiving a degree provide a broad education that helps you gain skills that translate to many jobs, as well as the credentials that define you as someone with the ability to learn and apply new concepts. That’s what the economy needs and the job market demands.

It’s useful to divide the answer to your question in two, because the challenges to staying in college are different for freshmen and sophomores than for juniors and seniors.

Getting on the Right Track Early

Students, especially students of color from low- and moderate-income families, who drop out during their first two years of college generally do so because of lack of academic readiness and social-adjustment issues. Government and achievement-test statistics (pdf) show that African-American students are persistently shortchanged in their K-12 years. And while most freshmen are living away from home for the first time, many students of color are the first in their family to go to college and don’t have parents and siblings with knowledge and experience who can help them make the adjustment.

United Negro College Fund, of which I am president and CEO, is acting aggressively on both of these fronts. Along with education-reform activists and charter school networks across the country, we are advocating for reforms that would guarantee that every high school graduate is prepared for college coursework and college success. In the meantime, UNCF-member HBCUs have active developmental education programs, helping their students catch up to where they should be.

We are also addressing social challenges to staying in school and graduating. Our UNCF Gates Millennium Scholars Program, a partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, gives scholarship recipients not only a check to pay expenses but also a suite of supports, including mentoring, leadership training and academic and social support. The fact that the Gates program retains 97 percent of its freshmen into sophomore year and has a 90 percent six-year graduation rate speaks to the effectiveness of its approach.

Many of our member HBCUs are following the same approach on their campuses. Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. (pdf), for example, has made retention a top priority. Its Academic Success and Achievement Program gives at-risk students access to a broad range of programs — learning communities, tutoring, mentoring and much more. The result has been an increase in retention from 70 percent to 78 percent in one year, a substantial improvement. Other UNCF institutions, like Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, also have a range of programs to support their students, and retention rates of 87 percent and 89 percent respectively.