College graduation rates are generally rising across the country. That's the good news.
Less positive: Gaps remain between the graduation rates of black students and white students, and in some cases those gaps have increased, according to a new report.
Some local schools have done well, with Rutgers University's New Brunswick and Newark campuses both shrinking the black/white gap in graduation rates. But, the report found, Rowan University and Kean University saw black graduation rates decrease as white graduation rates rose.
The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on improving educational outcomes, especially for low-income and minority students, released a report this month analyzing six-year graduation rates from 2003 to 2013 for 232 schools with overall increases in graduation rates.
Nationwide, the graduation rate for black students increased 4.4 percentage points from 2003 to 2013. The rate for white students increased 5.6 percentage points.
"We've always known that the overall graduation rate doesn't tell you everything you need to know," said Andrew Howard Nichols, the report's lead author.
"At this point it should be something that's almost a no-brainer. You can't simply look at the overall data and then raise your hand and proclaim victory," said Nichols, the Education Trust's director for higher education research and data analytics. "Especially if you suggest you are an equity-minded institution and you care about these things, you have to drill down and look at these subgroups."
Other useful ways to break down student populations include by gender and family income, Nichols said. For this particular report, "Rising Tide II," the trust focused on the black graduation rate because it was particularly different from the white graduation rate.
Rowan University's graduation rate gap increased by 13.9 percentage points, making it one of the most negative changes in the nation, according to the Education Trust's analysis. The white graduation rate had increased 8.4 percentage points, but the black rate had fallen 5.5.
"We knew that we had retention issues," said Rory McElwee, the associate vice president for student retention at Rowan.
Rowan began revamping its student support services about five years ago, McElwee said; her role, for example, did not exist until 2012.
In recent years, Rowan has implemented new advising systems and doubled its professional advising staff, launched a universitywide data system to track student performance, and created new programs to identify at-risk students and proactively reach out to them.
"What we're seeing now in our most recent data is quite different from what this report is showing, and that's because the changes that we've made at Rowan are still so recent," McElwee said.
Graduation rates for black students at Rowan have again begun to rise, McElwee said, saying they are now higher than at any point since the university began tracking the data in 1997.
The report's data "are not wrong, but I don't think they're actually particularly relevant to Rowan as we are now, because of the changes we've made," McElwee said. "We're providing a completely different academic support landscape now from where we were just a few years ago."
Kean University in Union County was listed for a black graduation rate that declined 4.8 percentage points, while the white graduation rate rose 3.6 percentage points. So while Kean's overall graduation rate rose 2.6 percentage points, its graduation gap increased 8.4 points.
"The university is focused on improving four- and six-year graduation rates with ongoing retention strategies and support services provided to all students who need them," Kean spokeswoman Margaret McCorry said in an email.
McCorry listed various services, including peer-to-peer mentoring; intervention counseling for students on academic probation; and learning centers for writing, oral communications, and reading.
Also named in the report for increasing the white graduation rate while the black graduation rate fell are Millersville University of Pennsylvania and Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
The report also names several schools that have done well addressing the gap, including East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.
In New Jersey, Rutgers-New Brunswick decreased its gap by 5.2 percentage points, and Rutgers-Newark shrunk its gap by 8.6 points, the Education Trust found.
"We're proud. We're happy that we continue to be an engine of social mobility by encouraging students from lower- and working-class to go to college and get a college degree," said John J. Gunkel, Rutgers-Newark's vice chancellor for academic programs and services.
Rutgers-Newark has focused on changing the campus climate, developmental education, and financial aid, Gunkel said. Those changes have led to a campus regularly lauded as the most diverse in the country, developmental course pass rates in the 80s and 90s, and scholarship programs aimed at the neediest students.
Rutgers-New Brunswick has found success through a data-driven approach, expanding programs that have shown success, said James H. Whitney III, assistant vice chancellor in New Brunswick.
"You build on works, and you continue to refine it, fill in the gaps," Whitney said. "You work with the community. The needs of students will continue to change every year."
Externally funded programs such as the federal TRIO programs or the state Educational Opportunity Fund provide additional resources and support for some students, Whitney said, but that leaves out some students who could also benefit from them.
So Rutgers has adapted some parts of those programs, Whitney said, such as by creating summer programs.
"When you have students with diverse backgrounds and different needs . . . we need to have ways to meet those needs," Whitney said.
"It's very important. It's critical. It's critical that they are retained; it's critical that they graduate," he said. "Our success is dependent on their success."