Study Finds HBCUs Graduate More Poor Black Students Than White Colleges

Howard University graduates celebrate at commencement in May 2016.
Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At a congressional luncheon in their honor Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told leaders from historically black colleges and universities that the Department of Education “will continue working closely with you to help identify evolving needs, increase capacity, and attract research dollars. We will also work closely with you to launch new initiatives that meet the needs of today’s students.”

“HBCUs remain at the forefront of opening doors that had previously been closed to so many,” she said. “You made higher education accessible to students who otherwise would have been denied the opportunity.”

The White House acclaim for HBCUs comes in the same week as a study by The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, revealed that the nation’s HBCUs are doing a much better job than predominantly white schools in graduating low-income black students.

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The study, entitled “A Look at Black Student Success,” concluded that at most of the nation’s four-year public and private colleges and universities, a significant gap exists between the graduation rates of black students and white students. At the 676 public and private nonprofit institutions included in The Education Trust survey (not including HBCUs), the six-year graduation rate for black students was 45.4 percent — 19.3 points lower than the 64.7 percent graduation rate for white students.

The authors of the report, Andrew H. Nichols and Denzel Evans-Bell, point out a major reason for the gap: Black freshmen are less likely to enroll at institutions where most freshmen graduate (the nation’s most selective schools) and more likely to enroll at institutions where few do.

But the authors also burrowed beneath the numbers to assess how well the nation’s institutions of higher learning are doing with low-income students — identified as those eligible for the Pell Grant. A college degree has long been much less attainable for low-income Americans: Federal statistics indicate that an individual whose household income is in the top quartile of Americans is eight times more likely to hold a college degree than an individual in the lowest quartile.

The study compared the graduation rates for schools whose Pell Grant recipients make up 40–75 percent of their student bodies. In this comparison, the average graduation rate for black students at HBCUs was 37.8 percent, compared with 32.0 percent for non-HBCUs. The study noted that roughly half of the nation’s 105 HBCUs have a freshman class where three-quarters of the students are from low-income backgrounds, while just 1 percent of the 676 non-HBCUs serve as high a percentage of low-income students.

Joe B. Whitehead Jr., provost and vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at North Carolina A&T State University, said that while A&T — one of the top five schools in the country in conferring bachelor’s degrees to African Americans — is seeking to enroll more students who are better prepared, the school recognizes that it must help students who are from more challenging backgrounds.

“While it doesn’t come out in the data, many students who are lower on the socioeconomic scale would be more successful if they didn’t have problems outside the classroom,” Whitehead said. “We are looking for ways to make them feel at home, make them feel comfortable discussing issues that may be at play in their lives that are obstacles to their performing at a higher level. It could be a lack of study habits, but it could be that there is a family issue at home the student is worried about. In some cases, students are helping maintain the household while they are in college. All of these things play a role in their success.”

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