Building a Path to College Success

By Kati Haycock   Thirty years ago, the average American could still earn a middle-class wage with only a high school education. But the demands of the job market have shifted, and a high school diploma is no longer enough. 

Indeed, a recent study found that nearly 60 percent of jobs in this country require education beyond high school. Yet little more than half of those who enroll in four-year colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Meanwhile, there are large and growing gaps in degree attainment between white students and their Latino and African-American classmates. If we continue at the current pace, far too many of these students will be essentially shut out of mainstream society. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Too often, differences in college-completion rates are attributed to the choices or circumstances of students themselves. “They’re not very well prepared,” say the apologists.  Or, “They don’t work very hard on their studies.” A look at the data, however, shows that colleges and universities have the ability to graduate all groups of students at similar rates — and many already are doing so.

Two briefs released last month by The Education Trust identified dozens of colleges across the country with small or no graduation-rate gaps between minority students and their white peers. The authors found time and again that colleges can produce far more minority graduates — without compromising entrance requirements or academic standards. It takes an intentional focus on data, strong leadership, and a commitment to make student success a central part of the mission.

Look at Winthrop University in South Carolina. The staff and faculty expect that every student who enrolls will graduate; consequently, they provide all students with deliberate support. According to Tom Moore, Winthrop’s vice president for academic affairs, the university has made student learning a top priority — a departure from the typical focus on faculty research in higher education. On average, 62 percent of African-American students at Winthrop graduate within six years, which is 22 percentage points higher than the national average for such students.

At the University of California/Riverside, graduation rates for white, Latino and African-American students are about the same, with roughly two-thirds of each group graduating within six years. Riverside has built a strong track record by closely monitoring student success and retention rates and uses these data to inform decisions about everything from the design of learning communities to student advisement and support services. 

These two institutions show that what colleges do for students of color can powerfully affect the futures of these young people and our nation. That’s why it’s important for prospective students and their families to know which colleges have higher success rates for students like them. An easy way to find out is on College Results Online, which gives graduation rates by race, ethnicity and gender for public and private four-year institutions across the country. Just a few minutes on the site can help students make better decisions about where to apply and where to enroll.

When institutions don’t do their part to help students succeed, students pay the price. As more Americans pursue a college education, institutions must not only open their doors wider to low-income and minority students, but they must also provide a solid path for success for all who enter.


    Kati Haycock is president of The Education Trust.


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