Black Colleges Struggle With Graduation Rates Graduation rates for Historically Black Colleges and Universities have fallen behind the national average, and the issue will be a discussed during this week's HBCU Conference, hosted by the White House. Michel Martin talks to Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Marybeth Gasman, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, about the low graduation rates at black schools, and what's being done to improve those rates.
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Black Colleges Struggle With Graduation Rates

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Black Colleges Struggle With Graduation Rates

Black Colleges Struggle With Graduation Rates

Black Colleges Struggle With Graduation Rates

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Graduation rates for Historically Black Colleges and Universities have fallen behind the national average, and the issue will be a discussed during this week's HBCU Conference, hosted by the White House. Michel Martin talks to Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Marybeth Gasman, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, about the low graduation rates at black schools, and what's being done to improve those rates.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, the White House kicks off a conference focused on the nation's historically black colleges and universities. And that got us thinking about the key issues faced by HBCUs. Among them, their graduation and retention rates. This summer, President Obama announced the goal of making the U.S. the world leader in graduation rates.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I want us to produce eight million more college graduates by 2020 because...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: ...America has to have the highest share of graduates compared to every other nation.

MARTIN: But for many black schools that is a steep hill to climb. And Associated Press announces last year showed the average graduation rate for HBCUs at 37 percent, below the national average of 57 percent. We wanted to talk more about this so we've called Marybeth Gasman, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. And they're with us in our studio now. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for joining us once again, I should say.

Dr. WALTER KIMBROUGH (President, Philander Smith College): Thanks.

Professor MARYBETH GASMAN (University of Pennsylvania): Thank you. It's really great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I should note that graduation rates vary dramatically among the schools. Spellman had the highest at 81 percent. Edward Waters College had a graduation rate of just 9 percent. So I wanted to ask first, why is there this persistent problem? And why is there so much variation - and I'd like to hear from both of you on this. Marybeth, if you would start.

Prof. GASMAN: Sure. One thing that I want to say first is that the graduation rates at HBCUs definitely need to be higher. However, I think one of the things to always keep in mind is the kind of student that many HBCUs are enrolling. So a lot of HBCU students are Pell Grant eligible. And so the research shows us that if you're Pell Grant eligible, you're less likely to graduate.

So HBCUs have had a mission of reaching out to lower income students. And so, the chances of those students graduating are a little bit less than, for example, students who might go to where I'm professor, at Penn, where there are very few.

MARTIN: But why is that?

Prof. GASMAN: Sometimes it's less well prepared because the K through 12 system is failing them. Sometimes it's because they don't have something to fall back on in terms of if they run into money problems in college, a variety of issues like that. That's not to say that HBCUs don't need to spend considerably more effort emphasizing retention. And I think that Walter can talk specifically about some of the things that he does in that way.

MARTIN: Professor Kimbrough, what's your take on this - on just the baseline question of why is there this gap?

Dr. KIMBROUGH: Like Marybeth said, the research indicates that if you have a high number of Pell Grant eligible students that is one of the factors. The other factor I look at is the selectivity of the institution. So, for example, if you'll take, in your example, Spellman, which is very selective in the HBCU landscape, versus Edward Waters is an open admission institution, you're talking about two radically different students.

The same applies even in terms of their number of Pell Grant students. Spellman has a lower percentage of Pell Grant students versus Edward Waters, which is probably 80-plus percent. And my institution has been 75, 80 percent Pell Grant eligible, not as selective. And so over the last decade, you know, we've had graduation rates ranging in the teens to low 20s. So that's one of those things that we look at.

So a lot of it is in terms of the preparedness of the student and the things that come along with the student who come from a family that is low income because they are host of other issues that are...

MARTIN: Well, let's just make it plain for people. What exactly - what are we talking about? Is it circumstance or is it motivation and attitude?

Dr. KIMBROUGH: Yeah, well, I think a lot of it is circumstance. And so you're looking at a student who, if they're low Pell Grant eligible, you're probably talking about single parent household. You're talking about a student that might be the first in their family to have gone to college. And there's research that indicates that, you know, the level of education, particularly the education of the mother impacts graduation rates. So all those are factors that play in - that have been challenges.

If you're still looking at overall 57 percent graduation rate, over the last 150 years of higher education, our graduation rate is usually only 50 percent anyway. And that's why you had those old games back in the 1920s and 1910s and say, look to your left, look to your right, somebody's not going to be here. That's always been, because part of that idea in higher education was that everybody wasn't going to be able to graduate anyway.

We changed, you know, during the '40s to say this is something that everybody needs and now let's focus on graduation rates. Before it was just a survival of the fittest - whoever finished, that was enough.

MARTIN: Interesting point. One of the other questions I had for you, Professor Kimbrough, is that many colleges and universities receive considerable funding from the government. But funding is based on enrollment, not graduation rates. Is it possible that universities that focus so much attention on getting students in the door, that they don't put the same emphasis on actually seeing students complete the process?

Dr. KIMBROUGH: Right. And for state schools that has been a part of the funding formula. But you're starting to see now a revolution, even in my state and the state of Arkansas. The governor and legislatures have talked about having a retention and graduation component to the funding formula. That makes a lot of people a little nervous. But I think the states that were providing funding are saying, we want you to be a little bit more accountable to the funds that we give you, so we're going to add this component.

And that becomes a challenge because if, you know, if I'm an open enrollment institution, that's been my mission historically, and I'm going to be funded based on working with these students who bring a lot of challenges with them, that changes the paradigm. I'm going to have to function completely differently.

But that conversation is happening now and there are some movements in several states to change these funding formulas, not solely on just juicing your enrollment, which a lot of people did, because you know there's dollars associated with those students.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the retention and graduation rates at the nation's black colleges and universities. There's a White House sponsored conference on the HBCUs kicking off in Washington this week. I'm speaking with Marybeth Gasman, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies this question. And Walter Kimbrough, president of the historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Professor, I wanted to mention that the male graduation rates at black colleges, or historically black colleges, are much lower than the graduation rates for women. An AP analysis done last year once again showed that 29 percent of man at HBCUs on average graduate within six years. Whereas 43 percent of the women graduate in the same time period. Why do you think that is?

Prof. GASMAN: Well, I just recently completed a study on this exact question. And one of the things that we found is that many of the gains of HBCUs are really due to black women. When the graduation rates are higher, they're due to black women. And a lot of people are trying to answer this question because if you look at the graduation rates for African-American men, they tend to be about the same at black colleges and historically white institutions.

And you would think because black colleges tend to offer this nurturing environment that's free of white racism and the doubt that you can succeed, that black men would be doing much better. I think that we're not really sure why they're not doing that well.

Part of what we know is that they're not connecting with faculty the same way that black women are. They don't tend to be as involved on campus, although that depends on where you are. They also are faced with many, many negative images of black men in the media and all around them. And so, sometimes they won't have the same kind of mentors as black women are having. And so...

MARTIN: What do media images have to do with what kind of mentors you have? I don't see the connection there.

Prof. GASMAN: Oh, I'm sorry. What I meant was they're faced with the idea that they're not going to succeed. That they see in all different kinds of publications, on television and television shows. And on the other hand, they don't necessarily have the same kinds of mentors that black women have. So, two separate issues.

And I, personally, and what our research recommended is that HBCUs take a closer look at the black men on their campus and try to create initiatives, and Walter has an initiative, a black male initiative on his campus - try to create initiatives that really hone in on what's going on with black men.

MARTIN: President Kimbrough, what's your take on this? Why there's this gender divide?

Dr. KIMBROUGH: Yeah, I completely agree with Marybeth that you're having a lot of the guys that come to college and they don't have the same level of expectation that the women have coming from their families. They're still expected, in some places, to help provide for their family. So there are a lot of other stresses that pull. In terms of graduation rates, if you're still trying to deal with your family issues and you connect to that home life, you can't focus as much. So that's part of the challenge.

One of the things, too, and I did a study as part of a book on African-American men and higher education, and I did some focus groups with guys. They are really trying to navigate, how do I deal with the men on that campus if I come from a household where there has not been a male figure? Because a lot of them don't know how to navigate. How do I deal with - there was not a man growing up in my house, they're saying. And so now I see there's a man who wears a shirt and tie every day. I don't know how to navigate and deal with him.

And so when I have difficulty - and they're going to experience some challenges, whether it's academic or social difficulty, can I go to this man for assistance? The men won't go for assistance. Women - and I know it on my campus, if a young lady needs help, she tracks me down. The guys won't. We just - but, you know, that's how men are men. We don't ask for directions when we're lost. I mean that's what we do.

But that's problematic when you're looking at, how do we get men to graduate? I mean one of the things that happened when we started our black male initiative, we looked at this gaping graduation rate based on gender. Last year for our graduation rate, for all students, which is still low, is moving up, the men -they're rate was higher than women. So there are some things that can be done, but I think we've got to have meaningful relationships, understanding the family environments that these guys come out of.

And what society's expectation is because, once again, society does not elevate the man who does well academically. We really don't care about black men who do well academically. But if he's an athlete or if he's a performer, we're going to just, you know, lavish praises on him.

MARTIN: Final question I had for you, Mr. President, I'd like you to give us sort of a final thought on this, why should people care about this? I mean there are people who would argue that this is your choice and your decision and your family's choice and decision. And you need to put the effort in. And if you don't, then you'll just experience the consequences of it. But why do you feel that this should occasion concern beyond the institutions themselves?

Dr. KIMBROUGH: Right. Well, if you look at the continuing change in the demographics of the United States, by 2050 or even earlier, that we're going to be majority people of color. And if you still have lower graduation rates for people of color, which means they're going to have lower earning potential, impacts the entire nation in terms of our tax base, in terms of the services that you'll need.

So it's important for this nation to put more of an emphasis on the success of people of color, including African-Americans and higher education. I mean this is going to be your tax base for the improvement of this nation. And we just can't look at it and say, well, that's just a segment of our population. This will impact our entire country. And there have been studies that say, you know, as America becomes more diverse, we've got to make sure that those groups that have historically underperformed have to now perform at a level that the current majority does or we're going to face financial challenges even more often than we face now as a nation. So I think it's very important.

MARTIN: Walter Kimbrough is president of historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Marybeth Gasman is associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and she studies the whole question of historically black colleges and universities and graduation and retention rates and so forth. And she was also here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. I thank you both so much for coming in.

Prof. GASMAN: You're welcome.

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