Like many, my journey to college was one I was prepared for. My guidance counselors walked me through the necessary steps of taking the required standardized test to get into Tennessee State University and they even helped me sell myself on paper to the recruiter. Although they put a lot of effort and time into making sure I was the first in my family to go to college and make my parents proud, they failed to teach me the art of survival when I arrived on campus. The first major event I attended as a freshman wasn’t a party at John Henry’s but Freshman Orientation.
During freshman orientation Judge Hatchett spoke to my class (I refuse to say which year because southern women don’t age, ask Beyonce!). She said something that stuck out to me, “Look to your left, now look to your right,” Judge Hatchett said. “Those people won’t be there when you finish.” Shocked and puzzled by her words, I thought she couldn’t be telling the truth. But she was. The young lady to my left and my right did not finish with me at TSU. Why? Because like so many other students, life happens and it doesn’t stop once you’ve been accepted to college. Life doesn’t wait until you’ve completed your matriculation to start wreaking havoc.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Although there has been a huge increase in enrollment for black people, which includes a 39.5 percent increase in associate programs, 23 percent increase in bachelors’ degree programs and 113 percent increase in all other enrollment. What isn’t being discussed are the low percentages of those of us who do not finish the race.
Generally speaking, only about half of students who start a certificate or degree program achieve a credential.
Only about 4 out of 10 black students who start college as first-time, full-time freshmen earn bachelor degrees from those institutions within six years. This rate is 22 percentage points below that of our white peers. If we were to dig a little deeper and take a look at the completion rates for black students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, we would see that at our most prestigious schools, completion can also be an issue. In 2016, U.S. News and World Report listed the 10 HBCU’s with the highest four-year graduation rates. They discovered by looking at the data from 72 HBCU’s, that the average 6-year graduation rate is only at 36 percent. Out of the 10 HBCU’s listed, only one had a graduation rate that was over 50 percent - Spelman College. These numbers are a problem.
So what is happening between the time a student arrives to campus until their projected graduation date that makes this seem like mission impossible? For starters, 40 percent of college students today are 25 or older. The incoming class no longer looks like your average 18-year-old. It’s the parent who has to consider the cost of childcare while pursuing a degree and balancing the many bills that come with adulthood alongside the late nights of studying and homework.. As a person who owes Sallie Mae my first-born child, it doesn’t shock me that many students take longer or step away all together to avoid becoming in debt, even through a presidency (just ask Obama). It’s not just costs that keep students from completing their programs. The way traditional degree programs are currently set up, they no longer work for a large number of students. One reason why is because not working is not an option for many. The non-traditional student title is starting to become the norm which means non-traditional class schedules are needed as well as more online classes.
Navigating the Waters: What Some Universities Are Doing
In addition, navigating through the waters of an educational program can be tough. Some schools have noticed this and have taken action to help students navigate through those muddy waters. Schools like Sinclair Community College have created an advising system that helps students understand how to go from enrollment to completion. This system has in turn increased the number of students graduating from their programs over the last five years. The University of Central Florida has taken on a new approach by focusing on online learning that specifically targets students who are working, commuting, and even first-generation students. Because of their commitment to their students, their graduation rate is about 10 points higher than the national average for similar institutions.
Now that we know that there is an issue, what can we do about it and why should we? Glad you asked. The call to action here is simple for many of us. As an alum of a program, college or university, I am sure you get those pesky emails asking for donations. Those same emails tend to send (if you ever open them) information about important strategic planning to move the school forward alongside other major ticket items (like the annual fish fry). If you get the invite, you need to lend your voice to help shape the future for students who are guaranteed to come behind you. I get excited when I hear students say they love TSU (the real one not that other one in Texas). I get even more excited when I see a young alum who graduated from TSU. So I see it as my responsibility to make sure I am a part of the conversation, or better yet, starting one.
Just like city council holds public forums about creating a new building schools need public forums where they can hear first-hand what the growing needs of students are. And if we don’t do our part and not share ideas with them, the graduation completion gap between black and white students will only grow wider. This will be because of our disregard for the generation behind us struggling to make something of themselves. The graduation gap between high income and low-income students will only grow larger. Why? Because a high-income student is five times more likely to have a degree by age 24 than a low-income student. So what are you doing about it?
Motivational speaker Eric Thomas once said “execution is worshipped”. Completion should be as well. Which means we must do our part in making sure we get students from enrollment to the finish line. This is our responsibility as a community. There’s nothing like the feeling of being a young black alum at your homecoming swag surfin’ alongside friends who have the words “degree conferred” written on their transcript. So join us in the fight by telling us what you think schools should do to help students finish the race in the comments below. Let’s work together to make it happen - for all of us.
The views in this piece reflect those of Blavity, with funding provided by the Gates Foundation.