Some Colleges Ahead of Peers Offering Systemic Changes for Black Students

Although the enrollment numbers and success rates of Black students at universities have historically been lower than their White counterparts, there are some colleges bucking this trend, according to a new report from Eduventures.

Led by Eduventures’ Chief Research Officer Richard Garrett, data was collected from ACT and The National Research Center for College and University Admissions NRCCUA, and included information from colleges with similar resources, locations, student populations, etc.—excluding historically Black colleges—as a closer look into the higher education journey for Black students.

The three schools that stood out as what Garrett refers to as “success stories” include University at Albany, Towson University and Amherst College.

“All of these schools would acknowledge they have plenty of work still to do. But they are all role models in that each has managed something very few other schools, of any type, have achieved: to graduate traditional-aged Black undergraduates at a rate far above the national average and close this population’s graduation gap that is the norm at most peers,” Garrett said.

Looking back to 1999, Black students made up about 12% of the overall undergraduate population in U.S. colleges, and this enrollment peaked at 14.7% in 2011. And as recent as 2019, the six-year graduation rate for all first-time, full-time undergraduates was 60%, yet for Black students it was only 40%.

“Very few U.S four-year colleges and universities (excluding HBCUs) exemplify a true commitment to Black students: enrolling them at or above population incidence, growing this cohort strongly over time, posting a Black first-time, full-time graduation rate above 70%, and a graduation rate that matches or exceeds the institutional average,” Garrett said.

However, small progress is being made. The latest Eduventures report shows that as of 2020, 37 institutions (3.9%) have been graduating Black students at three percentage points higher than the national rate. And another 154 schools (16%) report a Black graduation rate within plus or minus three percentages points of the average.

Although Garrett says there is no simple formula for successfully supporting Black students in their higher education journey, he found that the colleges making great advances accept that the change is a long-term commitment and that even one individual on campus can have a big impact on the pivot.

For example, in the case of UAlbany the school hired its first Black president, Dr. Robert J. Jones, in 2013, which had an impact on the school’s Black culture. And Towson University, post-segregation, brought on a Black student advocate, and continues to offer Black students support today.

“It’s not accidental,” said Garrett of the three outstanding institutions. “But it’s hard to cite what is somewhat unique to them. It’s more that they—through personalities and choices and circumstances—created a greater focus on Black students and a circular motion starts to happen.” This circle includes a healthy number of enrolled Black students, a focus on diverse curriculum, and the hiring of diverse faculty—all leading up to brand that feeds on itself.

“They [the three institutions] show us what should be ordinary,” Garrett added.

But changing the climate and culture of an institution is a long and arduous process. In other words, it’s a re-examination and questioning of the institution’s historical culture and values.

For colleges to change, Garrett notes that faculty and staff need to acknowledge that everyone has systemic biases. And while it’s uncomfortable, admitting this is the first step to hiring faculty and creating curriculum that will attract and retain more Black professors and students.

Garrett sensed from conversations that the three successful institutions in this study “welcomed the change deftly,” and most of the staff was happy to collaborate on detoxifying the system.

When he started the study, Garrett did not know which institutions would emerge out front as they were all similar in resources and profiles.

“You can’t say it’s because they have the smartest students or more money or are located near a certain population location,” Garrett said. “DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion], is a choice, first and foremost. It’s really just about saying ‘we think we can do better; we have a moral duty to do better’ and over the long-term, with the right mix of leadership and culture, you can actually begin to make big change,” he said.