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How some universities succeed in serving low income and African American students


Attending college promises a secure path to the middle class, but in its mission of educating low-income students and students of color—namely, African Americans—the public university system is failing. And given that communities of color are only expected to grow, with projected population changes showing that non-Hispanic Whites will no longer be a majority by 2050, it is now more important than ever to future generations and U.S. economic security, that college completion rates reflect the country’s changing population.

As it currently stands in the U.S., students from the least advantaged populations earn degrees at a lower rate, take longer to graduate, and are burdened with a greater portion of student loan debt. Despite schools underachieving in success for all of their students, there are some standout public universities that are reversing these trends and together, they provide a model for other colleges.

In 2012, non-Hispanic White students were 13 percent more likely to graduate on time than Black students. This graduation gap has slowly increased over the years, as on-time graduation rates have improved for White students but remained stagnant for Black students. Moreover, Blacks rely more on student loans to finance higher education and frequently have the highest student debt levels, as a result of having the least access to alternative financing options. Black students also are more likely to leave school without a degree. At public four-year institutions, 61 percent of incoming White students attain a bachelor’s degree in five years, compared with just 46 percent of Black students. This affects students’ incomes for the rest of their lives. A working adult with a bachelor’s degree earns an average of $18,000 more per year than an adult worker with only some college education. In other words, the populations with the greatest need are burdened with high levels of debt without the promise of a degree. Given projected demographic changes in the United States, public universities must do a better job of graduating all students at a lower cost.

Despite these statistics, some universities have closed graduation gaps across racial groups while simultaneously enrolling more students from low-income families. Three such universities are the University of California Riverside (UCR); the University of South Florida (USF); and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). Sustained university-wide commitment to the success of all students and to providing need-based aid and student support programs have helped accomplish this goal.

All three universities graduate Black students at an equal or higher rate than White students while significantly increasing their percentage of low-income students.

Here is why:

First, the three universities all discussed the importance of state, federal, and university commitment to providing need-based aid, particularly given trends of states decreasing funding toward higher education and rising tuition. Student support services, such as Summer Bridge programs, first-year transition programs, and a commitment to understanding diverse student bodies all played a role in academic success. Lastly, all universities emphasized strong leadership and institutional commitment to improving graduation rates.

Public universities often explain disparities in student performance as a result of differences in income, academic preparation, and the cultural capital of students. These examples show that targeting the success of pupils from such different backgrounds and their varying needs can change and even equalize student success, regardless of background. While there have been improvements in the college going rate across demographics, the gap in degree completion is widening. From 1990 to 2013, the gap between White 25- to 29-year-olds and African Americans holding a bachelor’s degree increased by 13 percent. A focus on outcomes is crucial to achieving success for all students.

As the population changes and the share of students of color continues to grow, college outcomes and the disparities across demographics become more important because for the first time, it would mean that a majority of the population is struggling to finish college while burdened with higher debt. Eliminating gaps in degree attainment is not just a student of color issue, it is vital for the future of the country.  As the path to the middle class, our public colleges and universities must work harder to reverse this trend and assure prosperity for all.

Antoinette Flores is a policy analyst on the Postsecondary Education Policy team at the Center for American Progress. To read the full report on how public universities can promote access and success for all students, visit