Transcending the Current Higher Education Journey for Black Students

by | May 11, 2021 | Student Success

Transcending the Current Higher Education Journey for Black Students: Colleges that Buck the Trend

Forty-two percent.

In 2019, that was the proportion of first-time, full-time Black undergraduates who completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. The rate for all first-time, full-time undergraduates was 61% and for white students it was 65%. While none of these ratios are stellar, the gap between Black learners and the other two is alarming.

But a handful of institutions have overcome the sorry status quo and built a different narrative. Eduventures’ new report, Transcending the Current Higher Education Journey for Black Students: Colleges that Buck the Trend, highlights these exceptional schools and profiles three in-depth.

How have these schools managed to change the story? What is ordinary about these institutions, not special circumstances, makes them exceptional.

Exceptions to the Rule

Figure 1 compares graduation rates of Black students to that of all students (first-time, full-time undergraduate population).

 

Black Student vs. Overall Graduation Rate (2019)Figure 1.

 

A mere 37 institutions (3.9%) have the distinction of graduating Black students at a rate of three percentage points or higher than the institutional average. Another 154 schools (16%) report a Black graduation rate within +/- three percentage points of the institutional average.

Simply outperforming or matching the institutional average, however, says nothing about the African-American graduation rate itself. Beating or equaling a lowly average is hardly worth celebrating.

Out of the 191 non-HBCUs that report either in-line or superior Black graduation rates compared to the institutional average, 67 also report a Black graduation rate of at least 70% (10 percentage points higher than the all-student national average of 60%).

But only 10 schools (1%) outperformed on all or most of the following metrics for Black or African-American students:

  • Sustained growth in first-time, full-time enrollment
  • Steady gains in first-time, full-time graduation rate
  • A first-time, full-time graduation rate at or above the institutional average over the period
  • A first-time, full-time undergraduate ratio above the national average

Explaining Exceptions

It is from this select group that Eduventures picked three schools for profiling. Please see our report for the names of all 10 schools. All of these schools would acknowledge they have plenty of work still to do, and none present a simple or linear narrative of success.

Our three case studies in the report, representing three very different types of institutions, are:

  • SUNY Albany (University of Albany), New York
  • Towson University, Maryland
  • Amherst College, Massachusetts

Figure 2 compares the performance of these three schools to sector averages.

 

Three Schools Leading on Black Enrollment & Graduation

SchoolBlack First-Time Undergraduate Enrollment (2010-19)Black Graduation Rate Trend (2011-19)Number of Years Black Graduation Rate Matched or Surpassed Institutional Average (2011-19)Black Ratio of First-Time Undergraduates (2019). National Average is 13%
Amherst College (MA)Stable then down somewhatFlat, some fluctuation (90s)410%
SUNY Albany (NY)Up 112% (some fluctuation)66-68% (some 70s mid-period)719%
Towson University (MD)Up 199%55-73%326%
Four-Year School AverageDown 25%40% in 2011 and 2019 (mid-30s mid period)013%

Figure 2.
Source: Eduventures analysis of IPEDS data.

 

SUNY Albany and Towson clearly transcend the four-year average on all four metrics. Amherst College, a very different type of institution, outperforms on two.

At first glance, there is little that is distinctive about these schools:

Location might help.

Institutional location has something to do with outperformance, but there are far more counter-examples. SUNY Albany and Towson University would perhaps not have such a strong track record on Black enrollment and student success if they were not located in or near large urban areas with significant Black populations (Albany and Baltimore respectively). But there are numerous other institutions in somewhat similar settings with no such track record. Amherst College shows that location need not be an impediment to greater student diversity, and both SUNY Albany and Towson still lag their settings in terms of representation.

History and personalities matter.

Towson University’s transition from a whites-only college in the 1960s to a multi-ethnic university, much more aligned with its north-of-Baltimore home, was inspired by early Black leaders such as Julius Chapman, the university’s first Dean of Minority Affairs. SUNY Albany’s first Black president, Robert J. Jones, in post from 2007 and 2012, provided a focal point as the university looked for new direction.

Resources also matter, but are not decisive.

Amherst College operates need-blind admission and spends lavishly on student support but has seen Black first-time, full-time enrollment flatline in recent years. SUNY Albany and Towson are less well-off and actually spend less than peer institutions on student support. However, they have grown Black enrollment substantially, and simultaneously raised graduation rates and closed equity gaps.

Faculty and leadership influence is hard to discern.

When it comes to faculty and leadership, only Towson’s Black faculty ratios stand out, and only for non-tenured faculty. Black senior leaders are either absent or exceptional even at the three profiled institutions. SUNY Albany’s Dr. Jones aside, the most obvious Black senior leaders have a DEI brief, suggesting that other top roles remain a frontier even at schools with a strong track record on Black enrollment and graduation. Towson’s Black vice president for student affairs is notable.

The report also considers student support units and structures at the three profile schools, but little stands out as truly distinctive.

The Bottom Line

That a handful of schools have successfully challenged the narrative of Black undergraduate underperformance is not a matter of special circumstances, but of choice and persistence. There are hundreds of schools with missions, locations, resources, support arrangements, and leadership similar to SUNY Albany, Towson, and Amherst.

What distinguishes these schools, and the handful of others like them, is a long-term commitment to equitable access and outcomes for Black and African-American students rooted in a messy history of particular situations, settings, and individuals. The commitment is part-official, part-cultural, and part-random, ebbing and flowing over time as priorities and personalities shift. None of these schools are free from racial tensions or issues. Indeed, any increasingly large underrepresented student cohort might be expected to spark occasional debates or controversies on campus.

Beyond institutional factors, it goes without saying that student agency is a key variable in and of itself, and less directly within institutional control.

But it is clear, at SUNY Albany and Towson in particular, that early commitment was gradually rewarded with better student outcomes and subsequent higher enrollment of Black students. DEI efforts and institutional self-interest became increasingly aligned.

There is no “easy fix” for schools wanting to transform their track records on Black enrollment and outcomes, and no bright line can be drawn precisely codifying operational cause-and-effect. But long-term commitment to equity combined with honest evaluation and continuous improvement over time pays off.

This is empowering: choice trumps circumstances. With commitment and persistence, “any” institution can transcend the current higher education journey for Black students.

 

The full report is available for Eduventures clients in the Research Library of Encoura Data Lab. If you’d like to obtain a copy of the report and do not have access to Data Lab, please contact us at insights@eduventures.com.

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Despite a year full of new challenges, you’ve made it past May 1st. Whether you’re breathing a sigh of relief or still working to get more deposits across the finish line, you’re looking toward summer and anticipating melt while being mindful of the need to direct your attention toward future classes. What strategies can you implement now to put you in the best position come fall?

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