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Graduation gaps persist between black and white students at area colleges

Black college students continue to graduate at lower rates than white students at all of the four-year campuses in Western New York.

The graduation gaps are generally narrower at the public colleges and universities in urban areas, a Buffalo News analysis of 2014 federal higher education data found.

The disparities tend to be larger at the more expensive private colleges. And colleges in rural areas also tend to have wider gaps, although SUNY Fredonia stands out as an exception, the analysis found.

Disparities in college graduation rates by race have persisted here and across the country for years.

But colleges are under greater scrutiny now for their graduation rates as campuses grapple with student unrest around racial justice concerns. Large-scale protests led to the resignations of presidents at the University of Missouri and Ithaca College. At SUNY Potsdam, students called for resignations of administrators, an increase in the number of minority faculty and a strategic plan for the college aimed to raise retention rates of “marginalized” students.

Students have walked out of classes on dozens of campuses and submitted “lists of demands” to more than 80 institutions.

Students have protested at local campuses, too, although not as intensely as those outside the region. Dozens of Niagara University students marched across campus in November, demanding curriculum changes and more faculty of color. At the University at Buffalo, two dozen members of the Black Student Union walked out of President Satish K. Tripathi’s State of the University address in October to protest the university’s handling of a provocative student art project.

“Students are speaking up now in a way that has not been the norm for some time,” said Micah Oliver, a senior at UB.

Most area colleges and universities are more racially diverse than a decade ago, although for some, just barely so.

SUNY Buffalo State and Medaille College enroll the highest percentages of black students. At Buffalo State, 22 percent of the students are black, up from about 15 percent in 2009.

At Medaille College, one of every five students is black, up from about 13 percent in 2009.

At the other extreme, SUNY Geneseo increased its black student population to 3 percent in 2014 from 2 percent five years earlier.

Nine of the 13 area colleges and universities had graduation gaps of at least 15 points.

The gaps ranged from two percentage points at Buffalo State to 25 percentage points at Canisius College. The divide at UB was 10 points.

In 2014, Geneseo boasted the region’s highest overall graduation rate at 78 percent, but its black students graduated at a rate 24 percentage points lower than its white students.

Across the region, the average graduation rate for African-Americans was 47 percent - or 15 points lower than the average graduation rate for white students.

Nationally, black students graduated at a rate of 41 percent, which is 22 percentage points lower than white students.

The disparity helps perpetuate the country’s racial divide.

“College graduates make a lot more money than people who don’t graduate,” said Bruce Slater, managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. “It’s the college diploma that really makes the difference in earning potential.”

Costly private colleges

Canisius College, the area’s largest private college, established a retention task force and now recruits more students of color to work as residential advisors and orientation leaders. Canisius added more African-Americans to its student mix in 2014, compared with 2009. But fewer than half of the black students who began their studies at Canisius in 2008 earned a diploma from the college within six years. Meanwhile, seven of 10 white students completed their degrees within six years.

Canisius administrators said a mix of factors can cause students to drop out before completing their studies, including financial pressures. Students from lower income families rely on federal Pell grants to help pay for college. But as college tuitions skyrocketed over the past two or three decades, those Pell grants didn’t increase at the same pace. So the maximum Pell grant, currently $5,775, covers a much smaller percentage of college costs, leaving both families and institutions trying to make up that gap,” said Terri L. Mangione, vice president for student affairs.

Mangione said graduation rates by race alone don’t give a complete picture of what’s happening on many campuses, including Canisius.

“It’s really hard to disentangle race from socio-economic status,” she said. “Students who are Pell eligible have a much more difficult time graduating than students who are not Pell eligible, particularly at private institutions.”

Canisius’ data shows that among students who don’t receive Pell grants, blacks graduate at a higher rate than whites.

Nearly seven out 10 African-Americans who drop out of college cite student loan debt as the main reason for not finishing, compared to fewer than half of white students, according to the Center for American Progress.

Money is a “major reason for a higher dropout rate,” Slater said. “Something happens at home and they have to leave school and help their families. And that’s really out of the college’s control.”

The publication also cited inferior elementary and secondary education and an absence of a family college tradition as contributing to lower college graduation rates for African-Americans.

Canisius’ Urban Leadership Learning Community, which provides scholarships, faculty mentoring and a “team-learning” curriculum, has been effective in helping many black students earn a degree. But college administrators said they have only enough money to accept fewer than a dozen students into the program each year.

Seeking diversity

Student activism has prompted higher education officials to look closer at the racial climate on their campuses and how it supports or impedes the progress of black students and other underrepresented minorities toward degrees.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education has tracked the racial graduation gaps at the nation’s most selective schools since 1992.

“Some schools are better at providing retention programs, like tutoring and mentoring and having cultural activities on campus geared to African-Americans, and that can make a difference,” said Slater, the publication’s managing editor.

Administrators know hiring more faculty and senior staff members who better reflect the growing student diversity on their campuses is one area their institutions can do better.

“A diverse faculty nurtures a diverse student body,” said Carol Long, Geneseo’s provost. “We have work to do there as well.”

But progress on that front, they said, will take years, in part because the pipeline of African-American academics is more a trickle than a flow. In many academic fields, the few doctoral degree earners of color who hit the labor market usually end up being hired by colleges and universities that have more prestige and can pay the most, said Gary A. Olson, president of Daemen College in Amherst. So campuses try other ways, like adding staff in multicultural affairs offices, raising more money for scholarship programs that aid minority students and connecting students of color to student, staff and faculty mentors.

The SUNY board of trustees last fall adopted a new diversity policy that aims to make SUNY the “most inclusive” state university system in the country. The policy requires all of the state-operated campuses to appoint a chief diversity officer by 2017. The policy also directs campuses to develop strategic plans to close any gaps in student completion rates. Geneseo asked the University of Southern California’s Center for Urban Education to do an in-depth study to determine why it was losing some students before they graduated. The college also received a $275,000 grant from SUNY to create an “honors transfer path” with Monroe Community College, which has a more diverse student body. The grant will make it easier for MCC honors students to transfer into the honors program at Geneseo.

SUNY Fredonia this month joined a consortium of 44 public colleges and universities across the country participating in a three-year initiative to remake the first year of college as a way to improve student success rates.

“Our student body and the demographics are changing,” said Terry Brown, provost at Fredonia. “We know it’s changing, and we want to be leading in that change and not responding to an unacceptable graduation rate down the road.”

The consortium will focus on re-inventing the gateway courses – the large, introductory classes that serve as building blocks for more advanced courses.

“Research is showing us if we’re able to go in and recreate those courses, there’s a much better equity of outcomes,” Brown said.

Buffalo State’s climate

Less than three miles from Canisius, SUNY Buffalo State has made greater strides in diversifying its student body. Over a decade, Buffalo State doubled the number of black students on campus. They now make up 22 percent of the overall student population, a proportion putting it second in the state system behind only SUNY College at Old Westbury, where 29 percent of students are black. Buffalo State’s overall graduation rate ranked near the bottom in Western New York. More than half the students who attended Buffalo State qualified for Pell grants. Yet, the gap in Buffalo State’s completion rates by race was the region’s smallest. A study released in December by the Education Trust analyzed the graduation rates of 255 public colleges and universities and found that Buffalo State and UB placed among the top 20 in narrowing gaps between whites and underrepresented minorities from 2003 to 2013. College President Katherine S. Conway-Turner attributed the improvements to a welcoming climate on campus for students of all backgrounds and races.

“Students really seem to be at home, regardless of what their own personal identity is,” Conway-Turner said.

The diversity of the campus also helps students of color feel as if they belong, and that sense of belonging helps students persist until graduation, she said.

“What we have that benefits us is a long history of diversity on campus and being in a city that’s diverse,” said Conway-Turner. “I believe we create a real inclusive environment that lifts all boats.”

Buffalo State’s graduation gap narrowed from 4 percent in 2009 to 2 percent in 2014.

Conway-Turner said the data for 2015 shows more improvement in the college’s completion rates, especially for underrepresented minority students. While not yet released by the federal government, the graduation rates for underrepresented minorities now outpace rates for whites at Buffalo State, Conway-Turner said.

UB’s efforts

The proportion of black students at UB slipped from 7 percent to 6 percent between 2004 and 2014.

“Our goal is to reverse that and send it up higher,” said Lee H. Melvin, vice provost for enrollment at UB.

So the university recruits more aggressively in Buffalo city schools, where about half of the student population is black, while also spending more time in the New York City area.

“We want to reach out and tell them, ‘This is the UB story and this is how you get here,’ ” Melvin said. To keep more students on track toward a degree, UB also tweaked how it admits applicants, with admissions staff now advising them more rigorously on what academic programs would make a good fit. Students who could be admitted to some programs at UB might not be as well-prepared academically to be accepted immediately into others.

“You still want to respect the student’s dreams and aspirations, but you also want to provide them with some guidance on the front end,” Melvin said.

UB also has appointed its first-ever vice provost for equity and inclusion, Theresa A. Miller, who reports directly to the university president. Miller, a law professor, is putting together a series of a dozen “difficult conversations” – fireside-chat style lectures by UB faculty on controversial, provocative topics that push students “into places of discomfort” for the sake of learning and growing. The first one will feature Miller and Andrew M. Scott, dean of undergraduate education trading ideas on racial, class and gender privilege. UB’s police force is being trained in techniques to recognize and limit biases that can affect how they perceive an unfolding situation and what measures they take. UB students who protested at the president’s speech were critical of how university police dispatchers handled their calls about “Black Only” and “White Only” signs posted on South Campus as part of a student’s art project.

Students said they felt threatened by the signs but were treated dismissively when they called police.

“It didn’t just make students feel uncomfortable. It made them feel unsafe,” Miller said.

She has been meeting with students in residence halls to get a sense of what more can be done to make UB more supportive for all students.

“When we bring people from the four corners of the world, we can’t expect magic,” she said. “We have to be intentional about it.”