Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Purdue University share a few things in common. They have roughly the same size student body, similar admission requirements and a similar percentage of black students. Yet in the decade ending 2013, graduation rates for African Americans at Rutgers climbed about 12 percentage points, while they slipped five points at Purdue.

A new report from Education Trust suggests that such divergent trends at comparable universities prove that what schools do to serve black students plays a pivotal role in their achievement. Schools that make a concerted effort to provide academic and financial support, as well as create a welcoming environment for African Americans are having the greatest success in helping them earn degrees.

As more college students take on debt to finance their education, getting them to the finish line is critical. College graduates enjoy higher wages and lower unemployment rates, giving them a fighting chance of repaying student loans. And with four out of five black students borrowing for college, ensuring that they graduate could mean the difference between promoting economic mobility and exacerbating the racial wealth gap.

“When presidents and provosts really prioritize equity and student success for all students, they tend to have a better ability to move the needle,” said Andrew Howard Nichols, director of higher education research at Education Trust, who co-authored the report. “It starts with a specific mindset. Then you get into mining your data to figure out what the problems may be. And then from there, you can figure out what types of adjustments you need to make in terms of the curriculum, financial aid or who teaches what.”

The findings are part of a broader look at racial disparities in college completion rates. Although more than two-thirds of public four-year universities and colleges have raised overall graduation rates, the gains have had minimal effect narrowing long-standing gaps in outcomes between black and white students. Graduation rates for full-time white students at these schools increased 5.3 percent between 2003 and 2013, but only 2.1 percent for full-time black students. The data does not include part-time or transfer students, just first-time attendees. But considering that those students tend to be most academically prepared, there is even greater cause for concern, Nichols said.

Researchers at Education Trust zeroed in on 232 public universities that improved completion rates during that decade and found slightly better results, with rates increasing 4.4 percent for black students, compared with 5.6 percent for whites. While the pace of progress is worrisome, researchers say the number of schools narrowing graduation gaps between the two groups is encouraging.

To explain away graduation disparities, college officials often point a finger at students, saying they are ill prepared for the rigors of academia, Nichols said. But a closer examination of similarly situated schools raises questions about the amount of effort universities are dedicating to bridging the graduation gap.

At Rutgers-New Brunswick, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center connects black students with academic advising, mentoring programs and cultural events to keep them engaged in school, said James Whitney, the school’s assistant vice chancellor. Two years ago, the university created an office of student access and educational equity to pull together state and federal initiatives to support at-risk students. Out of that office, the university runs programs to help first-generation college students navigate the university.

“We’ve improved our strategy, our coordination of services directed at first-generation and low-income students, who are often African American,” Whitney said. “No one size fits all, so as an institution you have to think about what are the needs of a community and set up a variety of programs to help the different constituencies within that group so no one feels left out.”

For its part, Purdue has recognized the need to dedicate more resources to lifting completion rates for its black students. As a show of good faith, the school in 2014 expanded the role of its provost, Debasish Dutta, to include chief diversity officer, a distinction that means he must ensure that diversity and inclusion are woven into the academic and cultural fabric of the university.

“The report was not surprising to me,” Dutta said. After arriving at Purdue, Dutta said, he understood that there was work to be done on the diversity front. “I discussed it with the board of trustees and the president, who were all very supportive, and we made changes.”

Since he took office, the school has awarded more than $1 million to 11 project teams across the campus to improve recruitment, retention and the climate for students and faculty of color. He has also created a university-wide advisory committee on diversity and is exploring ways to make curriculum at Purdue more diverse and inclusive.

“We’ve made significant changes but also understand that it’s an effort that will take time,” Dutta said. “It is a fairly comprehensive effort, and I’m hoping we will see results in the next three years.”

While creating a culture of academic and social inclusion has proved key to student success for some universities, others, such as North Carolina State University, are mining data to identify students who are most at risk of falling through the cracks.

Administrators at N.C. State found that students teetering on the edge of dropping out were mostly under financial, not academic, strain, so the school provided them with more institutional aid, a move that has disproportionately affected black students, according to Chancellor Randy Woodson. He said the university is also using data to track academic performance and intervene when students start falling behind.

“These tools have helped us identify struggling students early on, and it’s paid off in terms of their success,” he said. “It has improved all graduation rates but has had a more significant affect on under-represented groups.”

Between 2003 and 2013, graduation rates for black students at N.C. State climbed about 12 percentage points, reaching 64.2 percent. Those gains put black graduates within 10 points of their white peers, compared with 17 points in 2003.

Outcomes were remarkably different at the University of Missouri in Columbia, a school whose admission standards and black student population largely mirror N.C. State’s. Graduation rates for black students at Mizzou barely budged in the decade ending 2013 and actually slipped a little less than a percentage point, to 56.8 percent. Yet completion rates for white students rose by 3 points, to 71.4 percent, widening the gap between the two groups.

Black student activists at Mizzou raised concerns about the disparities on campus in the fall, calling on the administration to, among other things, develop a plan to increase retention and graduation rates for students of color.

Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies at Mizzou, said the university had been looking into disparities on campus before students began protesting. Over the summer, Mizzou hired a new director for academic retention to focus on mentoring, financial assistance and helping students transition from high school to college.

“The mentoring, in particular, is building on successful programs we’ve had,” Spain said. “Mizzou Black Men’s initiative, for example, has been very successful at helping African-American young men have higher rates of success, so we’re taking models that have worked and expand [them].”

Spain suspects that the sluggish graduation rates identified by Education Trust were partly due to students leaving because of financial hardships during the economic crisis. Mizzou, he said, has since developed financial literacy programs to help students manage their resources.

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