A black woman with a teenage son told me that several people had sent her the recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about black colleges “struggling” with low graduation rates to warn her against sending her son to an HBCU. The article’s headline stated that the six-year graduation rates at “many” HBCUs are lower than 20 percent.
With no mention of the total number of HBCUs anywhere in the article, the reader must infer what “many” means. In total, 101 HBCUs currently qualify for federal support; therefore, the AJC’s definition of “many” is just shy of 20 percent. In addition, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, 602 non-HBCU institutions of higher education, including predominantly white institutions, have graduation rates of 20 percent or less. This represents just shy of 20 percent of all institutions of higher education with data available for analysis. So if 20 percent means “many” to the AJC, the article should have been titled, “6-Year Graduation Rates at Many Colleges and Universities Lower Than 20 Percent,” and “HBCU” removed from the center of the story.
As with most sectors of higher education, HBCU graduation rates are normally distributed around a mean. The AJC irresponsibly took HBCUs from the far right of the bell curve and presented them as the HBCU norm, thereby giving the impression that low graduation rates are common, even ubiquitous, among HBCUs.
Most of the 20 HBCUs highlighted were small, private HBCUs that you’ve never heard of. The small size of their enrollment makes numeric calculations of their graduation rates very volatile, so the figures should be interpreted with extreme caution. But more important, according to IPEDS, the 20 HBCUs with the lowest graduation rates collectively enroll 70 percent-Pell Grant-eligible students (read: low-income students), and most are open admissions. Only 22 percent of the University of Georgia’s students are Pell-eligible, which the article randomly selected for comparison.
Graduating from college represents the hallmark of a collegiate experience and, for most, encapsulates the purpose of higher education, particularly among students of color. Students, families, higher education leaders and policymakers agree that graduation is important; however, there are deep and persistent differences in how people and institutions view graduation rates. Students of color take many paths to graduation that are reflected in a diversity of experiences that people have before and during college matriculation.
The 20 HBCUs highlighted in the AJC article, as well as the 602 PWIs, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges, educate students that the most popular universities reject. These students are more likely to need remedial courses in college and to work full time in order to pay tuition. As a result, these students will typically not complete college at the same pace as students who benefited from a college-preparatory curriculum in high school and have parents who pay their tuition, fees and living expenses. Therefore, problems arise when trying to compare the graduation rates between the “people’s institutions” with those of highly competitive, affluent institutions of higher education.
There is a noticeable information gap between the layperson’s understanding and the technical definitions of the graduation rate that leads to many misconceptions, condemnations and stereotyping of groups of people and institutions that have lower graduation rates, including black, Hispanic and American Indian students. The AJC article is a great example of how thoughtless interpretations of the graduation rate can lead to harmful misinformation.
When used effectively, graduation rates can offer a meaningful way to compare peer institutions, as well as a uniform method for individual institutions to measure success and establish strategic priorities. Popular media outlets like the AJC could promote good higher education practice and policy with a nuanced interpretation of the graduation rates, which highlights students rather than numbers.
For black people who, like the woman I referenced in the opening paragraph, are being fed this b.s. article (“b.s.” meaning “bad stats”), remember that when it comes to black people, if it sounds too bad to be true, it probably is.
Black people need black people who believe in black people enough not to believe every bad thing they hear about black people.