Thurgood Marshall College Fund Responds to Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Depiction of HBCU Graduation Rates

A recent series published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution outlined a grim picture for our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), based mostly upon analysis of some of the sector’s lower schools on the spectrum defined by six-year graduation rates. It speaks to stinging stereotypes about these extraordinary campuses and their students, and only partially exposes one form of value in higher education – a metric that is rapidly losing value in contemporary forms of institutional assessment.

For a host of reasons, this kind of analysis is at best, incomplete, and at worst, harmfully misrepresentative of the 47 member-schools represented by the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF). As a former HBCU president and current president & CEO of TMCF, I felt compelled to respond, but only after our team pulled the data to provide a more accurate analysis of our fantastic HBCUs.

First, let’s look at graduation rates. It is difficult to interpret graduation rates as a measurement of institutional rigor or effectiveness. There are many unique contributing factors that go into why an HBCU student might not graduate. Around 75 percent of TMCF member-schools students are Pell eligible. While HBCUs, do enroll some of the best and brightest students from around the world that choose to attend them, HBCUs go out of their way to give higher education options to non-traditional students that are first-generation and come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

That recruiting model is not without risk and challenge. A major challenge has been helping those students have the funds and support to stay and graduate.

This mission is not unique to HBCUs; it is a mission shared by many community colleges, tribal colleges, Hispanic and Asian-American serving institutions; all of which understand that the nation and its communities are better with colleges that prepare all citizens for productivity, not just those who can afford it or who are best prepared for it from kindergarten through high school graduation.

For some reason, these institutions were not included in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s (AJC) analysis. If they had been, it would have illustrated that HBCUs are statistically better at graduating students from low-income households and under-resourced communities, and in yielding a better rate of post-graduate fulfillment than other institutions of similar or higher academic profile.

Second, the headline, “many” HBCUs have graduation rates below 20 percent is a gross misstatement. Their own list offers nine school’s data from 2015, which doesn’t reflect the most recently available data and doesn’t adequately describe the story behind the graduation rates; a story that the Thurgood Marshall College Fund was created to rewrite with proper context.

The most current, (2016) six-year graduation rate for HBCUs is about 34 percent. There are several contributing factors to the discontinuation of a college degree for the remainder of students, however, as educators and professionals within this sector we have experienced disproportionate instances of students stopping their studies to work and save money for college, caring for children or relatives with illnesses, or transferring schools to meet these needs and others.

The average graduation among TMCF’s member-schools is thirteen percent higher than the metric used by the AJC to define “struggling” HBCUs, but even these numbers do not reflect that average Pell Grant enrollment (70 percent) at HBCUs more than doubles the total percentage of Pell Grant recipients enrolled in college in 2016 (32 percent).

HBCUs do more in educating and graduating students with statistical and cultural odds stacked against them outside of our doors than any other type of school. And as these schools continue to do the good work of granting access and opportunity to all kinds of students, we at TMCF look forward to working with outlets like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in sharing context and evidence of HBCU excellence, at every available opportunity.

Dr. Harry L. Williams is the President & CEO of Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), the largest organization exclusively representing the Black College Community. Prior to joining TMCF, he spent eight years as president of Delaware State University. Follow him on Twitter at @DrHLWilliams.