The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, after analyzing federal data tracking graduation and retention rates for HBCUs, came across an alarming finding.
At 20 HBCUs, six-year graduation rates were at 20 percent or lower in 2015. To frame it another way, only 1 in 5 enrolled freshmen ended up graduating within six years.
For perspective, the 2015 national average for all colleges’ six-year graduation rates was 59 percent. According to the AJC, a “handful” of HBCUs are graduating half of their new freshmen within six years.
Leading the list in terms of 2015 graduation rates was Spelman College, with a six-year graduation rate of 76 percent. This was considerably higher than Morehouse’s rate, at 51 percent, and neighboring Georgia State, where black students make up the largest share of the school’s population, with 58 percent.
But Spelman fell behind the University of Georgia, which, at 86 percent, graduated about 4 out of 5 freshmen within six years.
These numbers are not even in the same ballpark as some HBCUs’ graduation rates. Among a sampling of the lowest are Arkansas Baptist College and Virginia State University, Lynchburg, each with a six-year graduation rate of 5 percent.
Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis graduated only 7 percent of its freshmen within six years, while Southwestern Christian College in Texas and Concordia College Alabama graduated only 1 out of 10 freshmen within that time period.
The AJC report comes ahead of an in-depth report on HBCUs later this week titled “HBCUs: A Threatened Heritage.” The three-part series will examine “the problems many of the schools face, the unique role they play in students’ lives, and the perils that lie ahead,” the AJC reports.
Marybeth Gasman, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, wrote to the AJC about some of its findings.
Gasman noted that some of the HBCUs with low graduation rates had begun turning those numbers around and stressed the relationship between graduation rates and the income levels of a school’s student population.
“More low-income students—typically, lower graduation rates. Why? Because low-income students don’t have access to the same college-prep opportunities and because they don’t have the financial safety nets of middle- and upper-income students,” Gasman explained. “Please note that institutions that have very few Pell Grant-eligible students typically have very, very high graduation rates.”
Complicating the issue further is that many states have either moved to or are considering moving to performance-based funding for public higher ed institutions. This means factors like a school’s graduation and retention rates could determine how much state funding an institution receives. With that in mind, cash-strapped HBCUs that have lower-than-average graduation rates could find themselves cut off from an important means of funding the sorts of resources that could make or break a student’s ability to graduate.
These include, as Gasman writes, Summer Bridge programs, peer-to-peer mentoring and student success centers.
Many academics and education experts have noted, as this Washington Post article has, that performance-based funding directly undercuts the “education to all” policies upon which many HBCUs were founded. Outcome-based funding also disproportionately punishes public HBCUs and fails to remedy the historic lack of funding and institutional support for these schools.