At the Black Enterprise BE Smart HBCU Summit last week, during the panel Partners in Driving Student Success, Danette Howard of the Lumina Foundation said the following: “We need to stop asking if students are ready for college, and instead ask if the college is ready for the student.”
I thought of her statement when I reviewed the new report by the Education Trust, A Look at Black Student Success: Identifying Top- and Bottom-Performing Institutions; and spoke with one of its authors, Andrew Howard Nichols, Ph.D.
The Problem May Not Be What You Think It Is
The 22% gap between college completion rates of black students and white students doesn’t necessarily reflect academic unpreparedness or the financial difficulties many black students face. It turns out that similar schools that enroll similar students—that have the same level of academic preparedness and the same socioeconomic status—can have black students who graduate at very different rates.
“Our message always comes down to this,” Nichols told me. “Student success rates are not completely dependent on the students you enroll.”
Although that may seem counterintuitive, the data bears Nichols out, though it isn’t what administrators always think.
“Oftentimes administrators will excuse poor performance of the students they enroll, saying the students aren’t prepared, don’t work hard enough, or have challenges with affordability, and other excuses. Yet we can identify schools that have the same types of students that graduate those students at much higher rates. So it’s not always about the students but about what institutions do with those students,” Nichols said.
Making Student Success the No. 1 Priority
When institutional leaders make student success the No. 1 priority and hold staff accountable for ensuring student success, institutions can see gains in graduation rates, Nichols said.
To make such gains requires that an institution examine its data to identify the problems students are encountering.
“We encourage them to look at the data to see what may be causing students to drop out or stop out [interrupt their learning with the intention of returning to school]. Then identify the appropriate intervention.”
The report also examines historically black colleges—and reveals that 100% of them enroll freshman cohorts that are at least 40% low income, compared with 45% of non-HBCUs; and 50% of HBCUs enroll a 75% low income cohort, compared with 1% of non-HBCUs.
“They are working with a very different student body altogether,” Nichols said, “and outperform other schools at graduating them.”
The report concedes that graduation rates at many HBCUs do need to improve, however.
To read the full report and see the top-performing schools for black students to graduate from, go to the Education Trust.