The Discouraging Trend in Graduation Rates at HBCUs

JBHE has compiled a listing of Black student graduation rates at a large group of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities. The graduation rates shown here are four-year averages for Black students who entered a particular college or university from 2003 to 2006 and earned their degree at the same institution within six years.

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The highest Black student graduation rate at the HBCUs is at Spelman College in Atlanta. There, 79 percent of entering students graduate from Spelman within six years. This rate is higher than the Black student graduation rate at many of the nation’s highest-ranked colleges and universities. The Black student graduation at Spelman College is 15 percentage points higher than at any other HBCU in our survey.

The Black student graduation rate at Howard University is 64 percent. This ranks Howard second among the HBCUs in our survey. Morehouse College in Atlanta ranks third with a Black student graduation rate of 59 percent.

The only other HBCU in our survey with a Black student graduation rate of more than 50 percent is Hampton University in Virginia. There, 56 percent of entering Black students earn a degree at Hampton within six years.

At half the HBCUs in our survey, the Black student graduation rate is 33 percent or lower. At these institutions, less than one third of all entering African American students earned a bachelor’s degree within six years. There are six HBCUs in our survey where less than one in five entering Black students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

The lowest Black student graduation rate is at the University of the District of Columbia and Texas Southern University. At these two HBCUs, only 11 percent of entering students earn their degree within six years.

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Even more discouraging is the recent trend in graduation rates at historically Black colleges and universities. Of the 36 HBCUs where we compare current and historical data, 22 have shown a decline in their Black student graduation rate over the past five years. Only 12 HBCUs have shown an improvement. The Black student graduation rate at Florida A&M University is the same as it was five years ago but is significantly less than was the case a decade ago. The graduation rate at Texas Southern University also remained the same at a low 11 percent.

It must be noted that the downward trend in Black student graduation rates at HBCUs has occurred during a period of extreme economic difficulty. Many publicly operated HBCUs have seen a decline in state appropriations and cutbacks in state financial aid for college students. Private HBCUs have also faced cutbacks and difficulty in fundraising. This undoubtedly is reflected in lower student graduation rates. Prior research has shown that the major reason that Black students drop out of college is money. Thus, cuts in financial aid programs at HBCUs undoubtedly have contributed significantly to the downward trend in Black student graduation rates at these schools.

There are some bright spots. The graduation rate for Black students at Virginia Union University in Richmond has increased by 25 percentage points since 2008. At Fort Valley State University in Georgia, the Black student graduation rate improved by 11 percentage points over the past five years. Alabama A&M University, Jackson State University and LeMoyne-Owen College has shown improvements of at least six percentage points.

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  1. I read this article and I think it is too one-dimensional. It raises more questions for me and not any solutions. I would expect more research on this matter from a journal. I have the following questions:

    1. This article is based on “…a large group of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities”. What was the method of choosing or identifying those that were included in this report?
    2. “The graduation rates shown here are four-year averages for Black students who entered a particular college or university from 2003 to 2006 and earned their degree at the same institution within six years.” What does “four-year averages” mean? Why 4 year averages used?
    3. Why doesn’t this article mention the national average 4-year graduation rate and the national average 6-year graduation rate? These national averages reflect Black and non-Black students and it would be interesting to know how Blacks attending HBCUs compare to the national overall averages. Absent of this critical information, the HBCUs may appear worse than they really are.
    4. What are the 4 year graduation and 6 year graduation rates for Blacks who do not attend HBCUs? How to these rates compare to HBCU rates?
    5. Since all HBCUs are not created the same, wouldn’t it be more compelling to compare similar colleges and universities? For instance, Spelman College is an all-woman liberal arts college. How about comparing it’s graduation rates to other all-woman liberal arts colleges, whether they are HBCUs or not? Isn’t there a way to gather Black graduation rates of students attending non-HBCU all-woman liberal arts colleges?
    6. Why not compare the graduation rates of colleges and universities that are similar in student enrollment? For instance, North Carolina A&T University is a public state university in North Carolina with an enrollment 7,000 – 10,000 range, same as Western Carolina University. Why not compare the Black graduation rates of these similar universities?
    7. University of District of Columbia (UDC) is unique in that it is partially a community college. Do the reported graduation rates reflect the entire UDC? Do the reported graduation rates excludes the community college component?
    8. The article notes that “… the downward trend in Black student graduation rates at HBCUs has occurred during a period of extreme economic difficulty” and it infers that money “… is reflected in lower student graduation rates.” Why not cite the research to include the link to it.
    9. Are finances the only contributing factor to graduation rates? The Chronicle of Higher Education has a wonderful graduation rates tool, College Completion, that includes additional factors such as SAT scores, freshman retention rates, size of endowment, and more.
    10. The article notes that “There are some bright spots. The graduation rate for Black students at Virginia Union University in Richmond has increased by 25 percentage points since 2008.” What did VUU do to contribute to the increase? What actions are HBCUs taking to increase graduation rates? Are HBCUs solely responsible for poor graduation rates? What can students and parents do to increase graduation rates?

  2. I think the article is well written and provided a wealth of information exposing a problem. Journal articles are not meant to be research papers. Cheryl makes some great points for further investigation but we should not lose our focus off the problem. Our desire to defend these great institutions cannot cloud the exposure of the magnitude of the problem. I do hope the journal provides answers to Cheryl’s questions.

    • stop crying thats the problem in our community since 1965. always complaining and never a solution. Close most of these colleges and allow these kids to get a main stream education so they can work for more than just the government as a high percentage of african amerricans that only qualify for gov, jobs and not private sector. don’t mention opportunity – if corp. ameri. don’t allow you in – with a solid ed. you can develop something yourself. just think how many africans in ameri. can hire 100 people? you can count them on 2 hands.

  3. The article is an indication of the deep problems that face HBCUs. Many HBCU Presidents continue to cite the traditional role of these institutions of higher learning as a value proposition. One of these traditional roles has been to produce ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOL TEACHERS. We all know that there are acute shortages of minority teachers in schools. Minority students need position role models in the classroom, as well as in other professions. However, the basic insight I draw from the article is that HBCUs are failing to effectively use their capacity and position in the education value chain to produce needed graduates. There are probably many reasons for this situation: reductions in federal and state funding of HBCUs; inadequate student financial aid; lack of alumni supported scholarships; students who are ill prepared academically; mismanagement of available resources by HCBU administrations; inability of HCBU leadership to adapt to changing circumstances; failure of HCBU Presidents and Deans to develop and implement solutions to problems in spite of the difficulties they face! Regardless of other considerations, can we simply agree that: (A) even a 79% graduation rate is unacceptable because that means 21% of entering fresh(wo)men are probably not achieving their full potential; and (2) HCBU Presidents, Deans, Faculty and Administrators should be held accountable for these unacceptable results, especially for 11% graduation rate.

  4. It appears to the article points out that many of these student are not graduating because of finances, not poor academics. What are the Alumni doing to support their schools? I graduated from a non-HBCU and I know our Alums give back huge. I would like to see a study as to what Alums are giving to each school.

  5. I assume we are talking about four year BS or BA programs . Look at schools with lower entrance requirements who still perform a great service vs those with higher requirements. What is the stated role of the institution? I agree that the graduation rates must increase but also understand that there are many questions to be asked and answered.

  6. There seems to be a concern about graduation rates across the board in this country. The one group that seems to fair best are Asians. In some communities, I’m wondering how they are accounting for active duty military students who enroll, but then transfer out when they are reassigned. Or for students who simply transfer to other universities. I teach high school and I often hear students say, “I’m going to attend university “A” for two years then transfer to university “B.”

  7. I agree with August Saunders. There is way too much emphasis on graduation rates. What difference does it make? It took me more than 4 years and none of my employers asked me how long it took. They just wanted a degree. The focus needs to be on employment rates. HBCU graduation rates are no different from most colleges. It appears that only a select few have high graduation rates. Check this out:

    • The graduation rates listed in the JBHE table are for students who entered a particular HBCU and earned their diploma at the same school within six years, not four.

  8. So that everyone is aware of the facts (i.e., the rates as disclosed in the article are not endemic to HBCUs), in 2010 these were the 6 yr graduation rates for public colleges in each state (and DC);
    AL 47.5% AK 26.6% AZ 57.1% CA 65.1% CO 53.3% CT 61.5% DE 70.8% DC 7.7% (not a typo) FL 61.4% GA 51.6% HI 47.3% ID 37.8% IL 62.5% IN 49.7% IA 69.4% KS 54.3% KY 46.6% LA 38.8% ME 48.5% MD 62.3% MA 56.4% MI 60.7% MN 56.4% MS 49.9% MO 54.5% MT 42.7% NE 55.7% NV 43.6% NH 65.4% NJ 66.5% NM 40.6% NY 58.1% NC 59.1% ND 48.1% OH 52.9% OK 45.4% OR 54.2% PA 62.1% RI 57.8% SC 59.1% SD 46.7% TN 45.5% TX 49.0% UT 46.9% VT 62.9% VA 68.4% WV 47.4%
    WI 60.4% WY 53.0%. (See , last visited on Dec. 5, 2013).

    In view of the above facts for the 50 states (and DC), we should all be worried! Further, I don’t know where you went to school but we were told to “look to your left and to your right: one of you will not be graduating”, and it seems like the national data, at least, bears this out. Also, it seems that if you go to Spelman, Howard, Morehouse or Hampton, you’ll likely beat the national average (about 52.1 in 2010). BTW I went to Howard (GO BISON!!!).

    • Great information. I’m so glad that you posted the stats for all states because this is a significant problem across the board. We are seriously lagging as a country – being at nearly 30% ranking globally in higher education, with Asian countries stepping out into the forefront. I’m not quite sure how we raise the prestige of higher education in the United States, but I DO know that we need to get it together and unite as a country on this. When blacks, hispanics, and other non-white groups fail, the whole country fails! For once it would be nice to band together simply as Americans and we can fight amongst ourselves AFTER the victory….but that’s too much like right. Take care.

    • Then if that is the case why do we have HBCU’s ? Funny how one can grasp at something others are failing at to validate their dismal performance.

  9. Texas Southern University’s graduation rate has improved each year since the admission standards were risen in Fall 2008. I look forward to seeing an updated list.

  10. Black people need to do more to prepare students for the discipline and rigors of academia. However, the same could be said nationally. Four graduation rates are low at many colleges that are not HCBUs. Please, consider however HCBU in spite of their shortcomings give some people an opportunity to attend an institution of higher learning. Students need to understand they have a responsibility to learn. Unfortunately, HCBUs follow the standard model of testing more so than teaching. High schools have to share some of the burden of responsibility in that they pass students who should fail and give students inflated grades. The high school curriculums in many cases have been watered down. Some fail to emphasize the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics.

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