Grad rates aren't great on campus

Media - Newsroom/Press

By Rick Martinez

For years we've been told the $12,000 or so that North Carolina taxpayers shell out annually for every student attending a University of North Carolina System institution is an investment in the future.


Fair enough. But the current return on our investment is questionable.


The average four-year graduation rate of the UNC system's 16 campuses is 35 percent, a number greatly bolstered by the performance of UNC-Chapel Hill. Tar Heels graduate at a phenomenal 75 percent clip after four years. The School of the Arts comes in second at 54 percent, with UNC-Wilmington at 44 percent.


Given that more students are coming to campus with family and economic responsibilities, expecting a student to graduate in four years is a bit on the idyllic side. Six years may be more realistic. But by even that generous standard, 42 percent of students who enter the UNC system fail to get that prized sheepskin.


No doubt, a person benefits from spending time on campus. But for taxpayers, a student without a degree is little more than an expense. Employers aren't likely to be impressed either. Without a degree, higher wages are lost to the student, as are increased taxes to the public coffers. College graduates also benefit the taxpayer because their social costs are lower. Comparatively speaking, few grads are in prison or on public assistance.


Subsidizing the cost of college makes economic sense only when a degree is the usual outcome of the investment.


That's why the state's $3 billion budget crunch provides the UNC system and its new president, Tom Ross, a golden opportunity to right-size higher education based on productivity, rather than accessibility to every region of the state.


Outgoing President Erskine Bowles floated the idea last week that, under a worst-case scenario, the system might close a campus instead of making cuts at everywhere. But based on graduation rates, closing a campus or two - or three or more - would benefit the state even in good times, if those resources are redirected to universities that actually graduate a good percentage of their students.


I suspect, however, that few officials have the political will to bring up, much less confront, the lowest-performing universities in the system. With the exception of UNC-Pembroke, the struggling campuses are historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. Here are their six-year graduation rates: Fayetteville State (31.5 percent), Winston-Salem State (36.5) North Carolina A&T (37.2), N.C. Central (44.4) and Elizabeth City (45.8). UNC Pembroke's rate is 34.1 percent.


Some will say there are benefits to keeping HBCUs open, but graduation for most students isn't one of them.


The UNC system should take this opportunity to determine the modern-day relevance of HBCUs and whether they should be subsidized at the expense of campuses that provide a better return.


N.C. Central Chancellor Charles Nelms argues - and he's backed up by research from the Thurgood Marshall Fund - that HBCUs should be measured by a metric that takes into account that they serve students who are poorer, less prepared for college work and who often hold a job to get through school. Given these realities, Nelms argues that HBCUs should be getting more resources, not fewer.


There's no denying the greater academic hurdles, but are HBCUs the best institutions to address them? According to a 2009 Associated Press survey, the answer is no. The survey showed blacks who attended non-HBCUs had a higher graduation rate than those who did.


A firestorm would greet any proposal to close a poorly performing UNC system HBCU. But we should brave it, to redefine the HBCUs' purpose and relevance. At the least, consider consolidation around the strongest HBCU campuses.


Economic crises are never easy, but they do provide historic opportunities for rejuvenation and growth. The question is whether North Carolina 's HBCU community and the UNC System have the courage and vision to seize it.





by Charlie Nelms, Chancellor


I am a firm believer in countering misinformation whenever it is espoused before it begins to reverberate and become somebody’s “facts.”  Let’s ignore the issue of race for a moment and look simply at objective obstacles to graduation.  The two major impediments are lack of preparation and low socio-economic status.


Not surprisingly, the better-prepared student is more likely to graduate in four or six years time than the under-prepared student.  For lack of a better single standard, the SAT score serves as a measure of preparedness for college-level work.   There is an undeniable, positive correlation between the SAT score and the probability of obtaining a degree.


The median or midpoint SAT score of entering UNC – Chapel Hill freshmen, black or white, is 1301.   The median SAT score for entering freshmen at North Carolina Central University is 853. Black or white, most students attending UNC – Chapel Hill are better prepared.   In fact, with an average high school GPA of 4.47, Chapel Hill freshmen are among the best prepared college entrants in the country.  The average high school GPA at NCCU has climbed this year to nearly 3.0.  How anybody can seriously compare the graduation rates of these two institutions escapes me.


The second greatest obstacle to graduation is lack of wealth or discretionary income.  An oft-cited measure of wealth is eligibility for federal Pell Grants.  At UNC – Chapel Hill , only 16 percent are Pell Grant eligible whereas 64 percent of NCCU’s students are.  Wealthy students can afford to dedicate all of their time to their college experience.  NCCU students are often working one or two jobs while squeezing in as many courses as they can fit into their already packed schedules.  Working more than 20 hours a week has been demonstrated to negatively impact college success.


The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) conducted a national review of master’s-level institutions that singled out for praise only 15 universities.  Two of them were North Carolina HBCUs.  The SREB were identifying universities that averaged graduation rates greater than 45 percent despite challenging student profiles in which more than 25 percent were Pell eligible and the median SAT score was less than 1050. They found only 15 institutions across the country that managed to beat these odds, and two of those were North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City State University .  Closing down North Carolina ’s HBCUs is not the answer.


In the America of my dreams, everyone should be given the opportunity to succeed.