Busting HBCU myths with data

By Jeneé Osterheldt and Tyler Dukes

There’s a long-standing myth that Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, do a poor job graduating their black students.

According to U.S. Department of Education data, only 4 out of 10 black students graduate “on-time” — that is, within six years of starting their freshman year.

Weighted average of graduation rates for black students at 84 HBCUs reporting to the U.S. Department of Education as of 2014 within six years of their start date, or 150 percent time. SOURCE: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, PartNews analysis

Compared with colleges and universities overall, the number of black students who graduate on time is closer to 5 in 10.

Weighted average of graduation rates for black students at 1,671 colleges and universities, including HBCUs, reporting to the U.S. Department of Education as of 2014 within six years of their start date, or 150 percent of the time. SOURCE: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, PartNews analysis

So what’s the deal?

Jay Z says numbers don’t lie, but they don’t exactly paint the whole Picasso either. It might seem like HBCUs have a low grad rate — but it’s just not that simple.

If you plot graduation rates for black students against the percentage of first-generation students at a college or university, it looks a little something like this.

Approximate plot of percentage of first-generation students (horizontal axis) vs. graduation rates for black students (vertical axis) in 2015 for about 1,600 colleges and universities reporting to the U.S. Department of Education. SOURCE: US DOE College Scorecard, PartNews analysis

The general trend is that the higher the percentage of first-generation students, the lower the graduation rate.

And that’s an important relationship, because when we look at where HBCUs fall on this plot, they tend to be scattered around here, toward the lower end of the graduation rates and the higher percentage of first-generation students.

Approximate locations of 85 HBCUs inplot of percentage of first-generation students (horizontal axis) vs. graduation rates for black students (vertical axis) in 2015 for about 1,600 colleges and universities reporting to the U.S. Department of Education. SOURCE: US DOE College Scorecard, PartNews analysis

On average, about 43 percent of students enrolled in HBCUs are first-generation. Compare that to about 36 percent for colleges overall.

Another factor: Money. According to a Pell Institute study students from families in the top quartile (over $108,650) are eight times more likely to hold a college degree than a kid from the bottom quartile (under $34,160). About half of the nation’s HBCUs have a freshman class where three-quarters of the students are from low-income backgrounds.

About 50 percent of the nation’s HBCUs have a freshman class where 75 percent are from low-income backgrounds.  SOURCE: Pell Institute

But just 1 percent of the 676 non-HBCUs serve as high a percentage of low-income students.

That bag makes a difference. Not to mention, the schools themselves see less resources.
According to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, HBCUs have one-eighth the average size of endowments than historically white colleges and universities.

And consider the open-admission policy. HBCUs are more likely to accept students with lower grades and SAT scores than other institutions. The Post Secondary National Policy Institute found that over 25 percent of HBCUs are open admission institutions compared with 14 percent of other colleges and universities.

Despite the odds, HBCUs still make a major difference to their student bodies. These schools, which on the surface may seem to do a poor job at graduating black students, helped create the black middle class. At least that’s what U.S. Commission On Civil Rights report says.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have produced 40 percent of African-American members of Congress, 40 percent of engineers, 50 percent professors at PWIs, 50 percent lawyers and 80 percent of judges.

And to think, HBCUs only represent 3 percent of of post-secondary institutions. Just saying: imagine what these schools could do with more funding and support.

Long live black excellence.

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