In the run-up to the 2009 National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week in Washington, D.C., this fall, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund is taking issue with a report by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, on the importance of graduation rates in high-schoolers’ decisions about which college or university to attend.

The AEI report “raises some valid issues regarding low graduation and retention rates at some of the nation’s universities. However, we feel strongly that graduation rates are just one factor students and parents should consider in choosing what college to attend,” says Dwayne Ashley, TMCF’s president and CEO. “When ranking public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) alongside other institutions, the conversation must include the realization that forty-five percent of our entering students are first generation college students and ninety percent require some form of financial aid. Many of these young men and women come from low-income households and often must work to help support themselves and their families,” Ashley says.

In all, there are 105 HBCUs, including public and private, two-year and four-year institutions, medical schools, law schools and community colleges. Established in 1987 and named after the late U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund represents 47 public HBCUs and six law schools, accounting for well over 250,000 students. To date, it has awarded more than $100 million in leadership development, programmatic and capacity support and scholarships to HBCU students.

Ashley notes that TMCF’s most recent annual “Demographic Report,” which surveyed the fund’s 47-member institutions about the 2006–2007 school year, shows retention rates for first-year undergraduates at 63 percent, against the national average of 56 percent.

Published in June, the AEI report, “Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t),” complains that at a time when employers pay a premium to college graduates and growing unemployment disproportionately affects workers without a degree, four-year colleges nationwide on average graduate fewer than 60 percent of their freshmen within six years, with rates “far worse” at many institutions. Using official graduation rates submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, the report identifies the top and bottom performers among institutions with similar levels of admissions selectivity and shows significant differences between the schools that graduate most students and those that graduate few within each category of selectivity. It argues that while student motivation, intent and ability matter greatly, institutional practice also influences completion rates.

In a chapter devoted to HBCUs, the report acknowledges that “a few well-known” institutions compete for top talent, including Howard University and Spelman College, which post graduation rates of 69 percent and 78 percent, respectively. The report cites success stories among “noncompetitive” and “less competitive” HBCU members, notably Arkansas Baptist University and Concordia College in Alabama, which graduate 100 percent and 97 percent of their students, respectively, and Paul Quinn College in Texas, which graduates 93 percent of its students.

“On the whole, however, HBCU graduation rates are low, especially compared to other non-HBCU schools of similar characteristics,” the report says. It says 97 percent of HBCUs fall into the noncompetitive, less competitive, or competitive categories and the graduation rates at 67 of these 78 institutions fall below 50 percent.

“If nothing else,” Ashley counters, “the report’s findings that nationally, four-year colleges graduate an average of fifty-three percent of entering students within six years should highlight the need for educators and researchers to take a deeper look behind those numbers and focus more attention on developing solutions for increasing the college-readiness of our high schoolers.”

To this end, he says, TMCF for the past five years has tested public-private partnerships in underserved communities — working with local school districts, public HBCUs and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to increase the college-readiness of minority high-school students in six public schools. In addition, last year saw the launch of the TMCF Pathways Initiative on public HBCU campuses to address student retention and academic engagement issues.

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