Raising Minority Graduation Rates in College

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008; 1:18 AM

The Catholic University and Trinity Washington University are well-regarded institutions located next to each other in a verdant section of northeast Washington. Yet there is a huge gap between them in the relative graduation rates of their black and white students.

Trinity, with an enrollment of about 1,600 mostly female undergraduates, graduated 51 percent of its black students entering in 2000 within six years, higher than the national black graduation rate of about 40 percent and almost identical to Trinity's white graduation rate, 53 percent. Catholic, with an enrollment of about 6,200, has a six-year graduation rate of 25 percent for black students and 72 percent for white students who entered in 2000, one of the largest discrepancies in the country in this vital statistic.

Kevin Carey, a noted graduation rate researcher, merely reveals this interesting divergence in the data about the two schools. He does not explain it. But his startling new report, "Graduation Rate Watch: Making Minority Student Success a Priority," which can be found online at http://www.educationsector.org/research/research_show.htm?doc_id=678433, identifies the most likely sources of such differences and provides more hopeful data about raising the graduation rates of low-income and minority students than I have seen gathered in one place.

It is simple-minded, but true, that the colleges with the most success in reversing a pattern of high dropout rates have taken the problem most seriously and applied remedies with the most energy and persistence.

"If there is a single factor that seems to distinguish colleges and universities that have truly made a difference on behalf of minority students, it is attention," Carey says. "Successful colleges pay attention to graduation rates. They monitor year-to-year change, study the impact of different interventions on student outcomes, break down the numbers among different student populations, and continuously ask themselves how they could improve. Essentially, they apply the academic values of empiricism and deep inquiry to themselves."

Carey's biggest graduation rate success story is, intriguingly, Florida State University. Most of us Saturday television watchers have never associated that famous school with anything more than the hard-hitting Seminole football teams. That shows how much we know. The big state school in Tallahassee has created the model program for reducing college dropout rates, which it calls the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement, or CARE. It has raised Florida State's six-year graduation rate for black students to 72 percent, higher than its white graduation rate and higher than the black graduation rate of its more selective in-state rival the University of Florida.

Carey, research and policy manager for the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, proposes graduation rate boosters that can work for nearly any student struggling with academic, financial or personal crises. But he focuses on the black-white gap because that is where he has the most data, courtesy of the federal government's annual Graduation Rate Survey.

I did not know until I read Carey's report that this information trove, only recently available for all colleges with significant minority populations, is the much-expanded result of former U.S. senator and former basketball star Bill Bradley's attempt two decades ago to get the facts about lousy graduation rates among top college athletes.

Carey acknowledges the survey's weaknesses, such as its failure to count transfers who eventually graduate from other colleges, but says it remains a very useful analytical tool, particularly when used to assess a school's progress or to compare it to other schools with similar characteristics.

Carey reveals how Florida State's system works: "Using funds from the state-funded College Reach Out program, CARE staffers start recruiting low-income students from local schools in surrounding communities as early as the sixth grade, talking to guidance counselors and identifying potential candidates from the list of students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. CARE meets with the students' parents, providing them with information about what they need to do to help their children get to college and succeed there. Beginning in ninth grade, CARE provides a series of summer and after-school programs that help students negotiate the often-baffling financial aid application process, complete college applications, and study for the SAT and ACT."

As students near high school graduation, Carey says, "they can apply to Florida State through a CARE program that relaxes admissions standards for low-income, first-generation students if they agree to participate in an academic support program that begins the summer before matriculation and extends through the first two years of college. Due to the socioeconomic makeup of the state and surrounding areas in Tallahassee, roughly two-thirds of CARE students are black."

Carey adds: "The summer bridge program lasts for seven weeks. Students have the opportunity to meet the university president and senior faculty during a weeklong orientation, followed by six weeks where roughly 300 students live together in a residence hall staffed by hand-picked upperclassman counselors. Students with sufficient SAT and ACT scores enroll in summer session courses, and all CARE students take a one-credit course called 'Diversity and Justice.' The goal is to expose students to college-level work and the expectations that go with it--attending lectures, completing assigned readings, and turning in written assignments on time. CARE also introduces students to the campus and the surrounding area, helping them navigate a range of systems from public transportation to student financial aid."

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