Report shows wide disparity in college achievement

William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system. (James M. Thresher-TWP)
William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system. (James M. Thresher-TWP)
By Daniel de Vise
Friday, December 4, 2009

A new report, billed as one of the most comprehensive studies to date of how low-income and minority students fare in college, shows a wide gap in graduation rates at public four-year colleges nationwide and "alarming" disparities in success at community colleges.

The analysis, released Thursday, found that about 45 percent of low-income and underrepresented minority students entering as freshmen in 1999 had received bachelor's degrees six years later at the colleges studied, compared with 57 percent of other students.

Fewer than one-third of all freshmen entering two-year institutions nationwide attained completion -- either through a certificate, an associate's degree or transfer to a four-year college -- within four years, according to the research. The success rate was lower, 24 percent, for underrepresented minorities, identified as blacks, Latinos and Native Americans; it was higher, 38 percent, for other students.

Only 7 percent of minority students who entered community colleges received bachelor's degrees within 10 years.

The report provides a statistical starting point for 24 public higher-education systems that pledged two years ago to halve the achievement gap in college access and completion by 2015. Together, the systems represent two-fifths of all undergraduate students in four-year public colleges.

"This is not just research for research's sake," said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, the District-based nonprofit group that prepared the report, "Charting a Necessary Path." "This is the base line for a very aggressive action initiative among a number of institutions that have said, 'We're going to make this better.' "

The Access to Success Initiative, announced in 2007, predates President Obama's American Graduation Initiative announced this year, which calls for the United States to regain the global lead in college degrees by 2020. Any progress charted by the 24 college and university systems, which include the University System of Maryland and state university systems in California and New York, will dovetail "very neatly" with the president's goal, said Haycock, whose organization advocates for disadvantaged students.

Within the University System of Maryland, the report found a 51 percent graduation rate among low-income students and a 46 percent rate among underrepresented minorities, compared with a graduation rate of about 64 percent for higher-income students and 67 percent for whites and Asians.

William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the Maryland system, said in a statement that closing the achievement gap "is not just a competitiveness issue for our nation, it is also the civil rights issue of our day."

One bright spot in the research was the Pell Grant, the federal program to help low-income students through college. The study found that Pell recipients at community colleges completed their studies at a rate of 32 percent, the same as other students. Pell students who transferred to four-year colleges also graduated at the same rate, 60 percent, as other students.

A bill pending in Congress would strengthen the Pell program by raising the maximum grant and tying the program to inflation for the first time.

The research released Thursday includes part-time students and transfer students, significant groups that aren't included in federal data on college completion, the report's authors said.

Halving the gap by 2015 would mean narrowing the disparity in six-year graduation rates from 12 percentage points to 6 and shrinking the gap in community college success from 14 points to seven.

"If these guys make the improvements they intend to make . . . it really changes the trajectory of higher education in this country," Haycock said.

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