Graduation gap grows at state universities

Data show black students falling further behind peers

March 11, 2009|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

African-American students are falling further behind their peers at state universities, according to data released yesterday that show a widening gap in graduation rates despite efforts to close it.

The state university system reported that 40 percent of black students earn a degree within six years of entering college, compared with 65 percent of all students. That 25-point gap is a significant increase over three years ago, when the gap was 15 percentage points.

Officials said the system is enrolling thousands more African-American students, and particularly more lower-income students who often have to drop out for financial reasons. Despite those challenges, officials did not hide their frustration at the trend.

"The retention and graduation rates have declined over time, which is very troubling," said system Chancellor William E. Kirwan. Last year he ordered each of the system's 13 campuses to devise a plan to narrow the achievement gap. "It will be very disappointing if we don't start to see the numbers increase."

Several universities such as Towson and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which are known as "traditionally white" but now enroll substantial numbers of African-American students, have reduced their achievement gaps to near zero. But the state's historically black universities have struggled to graduate their students. These schools typically have lower admissions standards and must provide many students with remedial classes.

Coppin State University in Baltimore has the lowest rate. Only 17 percent of freshmen in 2002 graduated by last year - Coppin's lowest figure since the system began collecting data in 1989. A decade ago, Coppin's graduation rate was 26 percent.

Coppin officials did not respond yesterday to several requests for comment.

About half of Coppin freshmen take remedial math. Also, about 50 percent fail freshman English the first time they take it, meaning they must repeat it, some of them multiple times, before they can move on.

Frank M. Reid III, a member of the Board of Regents and senior pastor of Bethel AME Church, said the graduation numbers were "extremely troubling" and that historically black colleges sometimes put up bureaucratic hurdles that make it hard for students to graduate on time.

Kirwan said that as universities like Towson and College Park step up their recruiting of minorities, some top students choose them over historically black schools. In recent years, the system's three historically black universities - Coppin, Bowie State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore - have seen declines in the average SAT score of entering freshmen.

Coppin faces unique challenges, said Kirwan. "Its primary region for attracting students is inner-city Baltimore," he said. "We know how challenged those schools have been."

Those students are also from low-income families. Kirwan said some research has shown that a majority of all students who drop out are in good academic standing - indicating that cost might be the key factor.

The graduation rate at historically black Morgan State University, which is not part of the system, is 39.3 percent. A spokesman for Morgan cautioned against making comparisons among state universities, saying the black schools "accept students who might not be given a chance at the more selective universities."

Last year each campus in the state system submitted a plan outlining steps to close the gap, and progress reports are due by this fall. Salisbury University, for instance, is looking at the courses that freshmen fail most frequently to see how it might intervene. Bowie State is trying to identify at-risk students to provide better counseling and support.

The state is also directing millions of dollars to historically black colleges to make up for past underfunding. Coppin opened a new health and human services building last year and will soon complete a $100 million physical education center.

For Hispanic students, who are entering state universities in increasing numbers, the system reported that 71 percent graduate within six years, a figure that has been on the rise.

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