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Posted under: Opinion

Why All Hands Must Be On Deck To Increase College Graduation Rates For Black Students

Getting students to graduation cannot be the ultimate definition of success.

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The U.S. Census Bureau published an article in June 2020 proclaiming that 90% of the population has graduated from high school and that Black students have achieved an 88% graduation rate. However, only 26% of Black students attain a college degree, which is 10% lower than the national average. Why is this true, and what can be done to change these numbers?

Address Root Causes

Black students, especially males, are overrepresented in statistics that demonstrate low academic performance, high incidents of discipline and below-average graduation rates from high school. Black students are disproportionately represented in low-income, segregated schools that don't have the necessary resources to support their needs.

If increasing rates of college graduation and student success for Black students is the goal, support must begin in middle school or earlier. Data-driven interventions are necessary. The data cannot solely include current attendance and grades but must also consider the socioeconomic needs of a student, their historical grades, their support system and interests. A hungry student, who hasn't slept well or who is experiencing trauma of any form, cannot focus on their academics. Any person who is overly tired, hungry or feeling defeated in a certain subject isn't going to cope with stressors well.

With this more well-rounded view of individual students, many schools are moving away from "zero-tolerance" discipline policies and toward more restorative practices that seek to get to the root of behavior problems and academic struggles. The result is that more students are having their needs met, which allows them to more readily and successfully participate in the classroom.

Encourage Early College Conversations

Some colleges, including Ohio State, have begun mentoring programs that partner with local middle school students to start talking about college early. They look at what skills the students will need and provide opportunities to visit their campus. Some students can take dual-enrollment courses to get a better feel for the expectations of a college course. These mentoring programs give students a sense of belonging that might be lacking otherwise.

Create Support Networks

Many times, Black students may be first-generation college students. Being the first in one's family to attend college comes with more barriers than many realize. In an environment where college attendance is typical, students develop a foundation of what to expect. For students who don't have close family members who attended college, there is an utter lack of knowledge about how a college schedule works, how to manage their time, and how to find support when needed. 

Colleges that are committed to increasing the graduation rate for Black students must provide targeted support from the beginning. This includes assigning counselors and peers who are not only available but intentional about building relationships with students and supporting them as they navigate college life and course expectations. This support must be regular, dependable from year to year.

Set Up for Post-College Success

Getting students to graduation cannot be the ultimate definition of success. Default rates on student loans are six times higher for Black graduates than for white graduates. This is due to several factors, including employment opportunities, financial assistance from family and discrimination in the labor market.

If the purpose of getting Black students to and through college is to help close economic gaps that are typically exacerbated by poverty associated with low education outcomes, then the definition of college success must be more comprehensive than the earning of a degree. Colleges must work with students to prepare them well for the post-college world.

Schools need programs that help students to obtain post-college employment, including opportunities to practice interview skills, help writing a resume and navigating the labor market. It can, and should, include information for students about how and when their loans will come due, who they can speak to about setting up income-based payment plans and job options that will assist with loan repayment.

Increasing college graduation rates for Black students demands intentional, continuous support that begins by addressing achievement gaps in grade school and continues through graduation.

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