Student Affairs Advocate

Retaining the Black Student

Retaining first time, first year undergraduate students is extremely important in most College Institutions, if not all.  The goal is for first time students to begin in the fall of one year, and return in the fall of the next year.  Students who drop out of college before their first year is complete, may have a number of reasons for dropping out, problems at home, lack of finances, struggling to make friends and fit in, academic failure, or low self-esteem and self-confidence. However, attrition can have a high level of impact on a school’s funding, facilities, planning, reputation, and creating long-term implications for attracting new students.

Several other factors are involved when considering student retention, such as, admitting students who are a good fit for the college, financial aid, Student Services, and the professors’ ability to create an exciting classroom environment, just to name a few. Although many students no matter their race or ethnicity are capable of dropping out of college, it is more prevalent in the black community. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 53% of Hispanic students and 58% of black students are unable to complete their bachelor’s degrees over a six year period. These figures pale considerably when compared to white students, where 60% of students are able to finish their bachelor’s degree within this same time frame.

Other studies show that African American graduation rates have improved over the years, especially the graduation rate for black women. This year the college graduation rate for black women rose by one percentage point to 46 percent. And over the past decade and a half, the graduation rates for black women have shown strong and steady gains. Turning in a powerful performance, black women have improved their college completion rate from 34 percent in 1990 to 46 percent in 2005.

We come now to graduation rates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) which tends to be much lower than the graduation rate for black students at the nation’s highest-ranked institutions. Yet the graduation rate at a significant number of HBCUs is well above the nationwide average for black student graduations.

Statistics show:

By a large margin, the highest black student graduation rate at a historically black college belongs to the academically selective, all-women Spelman College in the city of Atlanta. In fact, the Spelman black student graduation rate of 77 percent is higher than the black student graduation rate at 13 of the nation’s 56 high-ranking predominantly white colleges and universities referred to earlier. Spelman’s unusual strength shows in the fact that it has a higher black student graduation rate than such prestigious and primarily white colleges as Bates, Colby, Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Claremont McKenna, and Carnegie Mellon.

Following Spelman in the rankings, the next-highest black student graduation rate among the HBCUs was at Morehouse College and Fisk University. At Morehouse and Fisk, 64 percent of the entering black students go on to graduate within six years. Hampton University, Miles College, Howard University, and Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina sadly are the only other HBCUs that graduate at least half of their black students within six years.

Here is the worst news of all: At 24 HBCUs — nearly one half of all HBCUs in our survey — two thirds or more of all entering black students do not go on to earn a diploma. The lowest graduation rate was at the University of the District of Columbia, where only 7 percent of entering freshmen go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. At Texas Southern University in Houston, 14 percent of entering students complete college.

The low graduation rates at black colleges are due to a number of reasons. Many of the students enrolled at these institutions are from low-income families, often ones in which there are few books in the home and where neither parent nor grandparent went to college. In addition, the black colleges on the whole have very small and totally inadequate endowments. They often lack the resources necessary to generate funds for student financial aid. Often they are unable to furnish sufficient aid packages for upperclassmen to permit them to stay in school. This circumstance appears to be a major factor in accounting for the low black student graduation rate at these schools. But probably the most important explanation for the high dropout rate at the black colleges is the fact that large numbers of African-American HBCU students do not come to college with strong academic preparation and study habits.

Many students attending HBCU’s have attended low performing high schools, or high schools that may not have sufficiently prepared them for college. When I was a Teacher at a local High School, I was sometimes corrected or advised not to lecture longer than ten minutes, which was surprising to me because many College Professors will definitely lecture longer than ten minutes, so I didn’t understand how I was supposed to prepare my students for college if I could only lecture for a limited amount of time.  Studies also indicate that many African American students may not have taken classes that prepare them for college while attending high school. “These are terrific students,” said William Powers Jr., who is the president of the University of Texas. “Often, they may have gone to a high school where they didn’t have a calculus class or Advanced Placement classes. Therefore, it is not unusual for many African American students to feel overwhelmed in a college classroom.

Many polls will indicate that graduation rates have increased for African Americans and Hispanics, however, it does not change the fact that many of these students do not make it to graduation. “If you look at the freshman class everywhere in this country, it is more representative than it’s ever been,” said Jones. “But in four years, if you look at the graduation class, it is not going to be representative of the country, because many of those students from the underrepresented groups won’t make it to graduation.  So what are some issues that may affect retention among black students?

Upbringing and environment: definitely plays a role in the black community. Many black students who grew up in poverty or in rough neighborhoods may not have support or enough support from their family. This is needed in order to motivate and encourage the student when they are struggling with classes or adapting to the college atmosphere.  In addition to this, many students from poverty or violent stricken neighborhoods may not be able to focus if some of their family members or friends are struggling to survive back home,  It is also important to point out that many black students who drop out of college may be the first ever in their family to attend college

“Underrepresented students typically are first-generation families, which makes it extremely difficult when beginning the college selection process,” Bosco said. “There’s not an anticipation of deadlines, expectations of what questions to ask, so we find that first-generation students, in particular, start with not only a blank slate but sometimes no slate at all. So it takes some of our students a period of time to adapt and understand some of our expectations. [The transition] is a tough one, particularly when no one in your family has done it before.”

Education is not always praised or popular in the black community:  Often times in the black community, students who are smart and are active in the classroom are considered nerds. In fact, I have never seen the need to fit in be more prevalent than in the black community.  When you look at most black students in both high school and college, you instantly see sagging, wearing their pants well below their waste. This is a popular trend among many black students, and some other races. The need to look good and standout is also prevalent in many black students, looking good in front of their peers, showing off their shoes, clothes, or jewelry, it seems as if there is the constant pressure to fit in or stand out in a crowd. I am reminded of the number of times I assigned home work while teaching at a local high school, and many black students didn’t even bother to take the book home, let alone do the homework, or the number of times I would see many white students and other races walking around with a back pack full of books, and several black students with either no books at all, or an empty back pack. Many black students use the terms, “geek,” or “nerd,” when their peers show an interest in a subject or school, and this has an effect on many black college students as well.

Higbee said some ideas about the achievement gap perpetuate stereotypes.“One issue is the idea of what’s cool,” she said. If it’s not “cool” in a student’s neighborhood to do well in school or be passionate about education, there will be ramifications down the road, Higbee said. Lateef Oseni said society perpetuates an image that black students don’t succeed. As somebody who hopes to pursue a career in media, Oseni wants to change how media is a source of the perception. “Oftentimes, there is this stereotype for what success means for our community, and it often involves being an entertainer, whether that’s an athlete, singer or rapper.”Shafii Osman remembers sitting in the back of Washburn High School classrooms with black classmates who wouldn’t even bring pens or pencils to school. He said black students have grown up in an environment that has set them up for failure.

Other issues are isolation. Not just among black students but all students. Many students feel the need to only go to school and back home again, or many students have to work full or part-time jobs, and are only able to go to classes and to work. This will surely make College feel a lot like high school. Part of the reasons why college is significantly different than high school is because of the many activities, organizations, and resources on campus. Therefore, if students fail to utilize student services, then they are at a greater risk of dropping out. I think this issue is significant in black communities due to the fact that many students may have to work in order to help pay bills at home.  Many black students may also isolate themselves if they cannot find a particular group or activity to participate in, especially those blacks students who do not walk with a crowd, care about physical appearance, popularity, and status.  These students, depending on the college they are attending, may feel that they cannot find comfort or feel welcomed.

Many polls will also indicate that many black men are failing to keep up with black women. It seems as though black women are a little more serious about being successful, as well as taking care of their responsibilities as opposed to some black men. I think a large part of this may be attributed to the fact that most black boys, lack black fathers.  Therefore, their mother and grandparents were typically faced with the responsibility of teaching them how to be a man, and if their mother was irresponsible or immature, then there was no one at all to teach them how to be responsible adults.  Nevertheless, black women do seem to be more serious about life and success than some black men.

Aside from that of black graduation rates, Rickey Hall has another achievement gap on his radar.
He is concerned about the disparity between the graduation rates of black men and black women.
“African-American women are faring far better than African-American males,” he said. “The women are handling the business and men are lagging behind.” This is true on the national level as well, where the graduation rate for black men is 38.6 percent, whereas the rate for black females is 49.3 percent, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Hall can relate on a personal level.
He said he remembers spending all day playing basketball, watching television and playing games while his female friends were studying.

Possible solutions:

Hiring staff that is able to relate to these students: I think it is extremely important to have academic advisors and other Student Services staff that can relate to black students. The ability to be able to relate is significant in the black community, as most black students respond well to strong black role models. Often times if an advisor has never been poor, lived in violent neighborhoods, or been without their father, then sometimes it may be hard for them to relate to a black student who has.

Staff needs to be able to communicate effectively and possess excellent interpersonal skills: Excellent communication and interpersonal skills are needed in order to build a positive relationship with the student. If a black student is undecided about their major, or what career path to choose, then someone has to be able to help them identify their goals. This is where strong listening, communication, and interpersonal skills are needed.

Hip hop music and reality tv may have an effect on black students: Since hip hop music and reality TV has such a huge effect on black students, schools must be able to offer activities that make the black student feel welcomed. This is where black fraternities and sororities come in, as well as multi-cultural affairs. Many schools have gone as far as inviting black entertainers and other celebrities to their college. I think if the budget permits, it would also be a good idea to invite black entrepreneurs to be motivational speakers or hold forums discussing the benefits of staying in college. Lastly, if advisors or staff members know of a student that has mentioned dropping out, or is having problems coping, then they may want to set up a visit with a successful black member of the community, who can mentor the student or relate to the student, because often times many students may need to meet someone who they have access to, and who understands their issues, but has overcome those issues and worked their way to success.

I would like to mention that there are other ways to help retain black students; I just wanted to emphasize a few.

Lastly, many colleges offer a variety of student activities, which in most cases are the main reasons why students decide to stay in school. Let’s face it; college is one of the most exciting times of a young person’s life. However, many of these students who come from low income families, and horrific upbringings and environments may have a difficult time coping in any college institution. Some students go to college just to see what all the fuss is about, and are looking for a reason to stay. Therefore it is imperative that they come in contact with someone who can identify to them, as well as help them navigate their way through certain processes, especially the classroom.  I would like to reiterate that not all black students suffer from many of the issues I listed above, however, more often than not; many black students have experienced some kind of adversity in their lives, so often times we must find a way to get through the tough exterior or wall that many black students may put up.  I would also like to mention the fact that retention is a problem on most campuses, no matter what culture or ethnicity, many students have thought about dropping out or are dealing with significant issues back home. Many colleges have organized strategic plans for increasing retention rates, and others have even implemented plans for increasing retention rates among black students. No matter what the reasons behind low graduation rates may be, it is important to help our black students and students in general to get to college, stay in college, and eventually become productive members of society.


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