(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Since the civil rights movement, racial minorities have made great strides in the world of higher education. Yet when it comes to graduating on time, many are still at a disadvantage.
Even as college enrollment among minorities continues to rise, the latest figures from the Department of Education’s graduation rate survey show a significant gap in rates for black and Hispanic students compared to their white peers.
About 39 percent of blacks and 42 percent of Latinos at all degree-granting institutions who first enrolled in 1996 graduated within six years, compared to 58 percent of whites and 55 percent of students overall. Four-year rates reveal the same disparities, with whites graduating at a 36 percent rate and blacks and Hispanics both at 19 percent.
School administrators said the primary reasons are cultural. Mary Cothran, director of multi-ethnic student education at the University of Maryland — where six-year rates for black students are 17 percent lower than those for whites — said minority students often receive inferior college preparation at a high school level, putting them at a disadvantage.
“I think it’s possibly related to the schools these students attended before they came (to college),” said Cothran. “They may not have had the same level of preparation for higher education as some of the other students.”
Augmenting the problem is a general feeling of isolation, particularly at more selective institutions, which tend to be less diverse. In a campus environment that is majority white, black and Hispanic students may feel alienated, putting them at a particular risk.
“These are students who are on the margins financially and who have not had the most rigorous curriculum,” said Eugene Anderson, senior research associate for the American Council on Education and author of several studies on minorities in higher education. “If you add that to being put on a campus that is often very different from the environment they are from, then it does make for a very challenging situation for black and Latino students.”
While they cautioned that many of the reasons for these disparities occur before students reach the college level, school administrators said they’re doing what they can to address the issue. The most immediate impact a school can have, they said, is in creating a make sure minorities don’t feel out of place.
“That has everything to do with the university itself — academic advising, feeling part of the institution, feeling like you’re part of the university community,” said Camille Hazeur, director of the office of diversity and equity services at George Mason University. “We know from the research that if students don’t feel a part of the community they have a greater of being distracted academically and subsequently flunking out.”
Hazeur said her office holds regular focus groups to assess the needs of minority students and develop programs to integrate them into campus life. Those efforts, she said, have played a key role in keeping GMU’s graduation rates for blacks and Hispanics — at 50 percent and 49 percent, respectively — on par with the total rate of 52 percent.
Other schools are taking steps to address the fundamental problems behind the gap. James Madison University in Virginia has developed a “Faculty in Residence” program in which professors from the university are placed in public high schools across the state with large minority populations to help them develop a more effective college prep curriculum.
“These students can now acquire the skills at the high school level that will make them more competitive at the university level,” said Daniel Wubah, special assistant to the president at JMU. “We don’t want to just increase the number of minority students who go to college, but also make sure they go with the right preparation.”
Though the program is in its first year, Wubah said JMU has already seen an increase in minority applicants from the participating schools and that more of the students are seeking information on applying to college.
Yet despite such programs, analysts and college officials said schools are just beginning to explore their own role in preparing students at lower levels of education, and that much of the problem is still out of the hands of the university itself. However, administrators said they are committed to finding ways that they can help make a change.
“I think the institution itself — the atmosphere it creates — does have something to with the retention of minorities, particularly at majority white institutions,” said Hazeur. “We need to need to find places where students can feel a sense of community, whatever that might mean.”