Focus to Finish: Increasing the College Completion Rates for Hispanic and Black Students

Focus to Finish: Increasing the College Completion Rates for Hispanic and Black Students

Focus to Finish: High School to College

School is out for the summer and high school graduation parties are in full swing. It’s hard to believe that 13 years ago, we were celebrating my first-born’s graduation from high school. We hosted a party and invited family and friends who played a part in her success. In the front yard of our home, we posted signs announcing my daughter’s graduation and where she would be attending college just a few weeks later. When all the family and friends – her village – had arrived, we did something that I believe was the best part of the afternoon. Each adult spoke a word over my daughter. One of the spoken words has stayed with us to this day. My friend, Vickie, encouraged my daughter, India, to “focus to finish.” Vickie talked about the experience of college and that while many students start the journey, few finish it.


India’s graduation day – Master of Arts in Teaching, May 2018, Mercer University, Atlanta Campus

Over the four years that India attended the University of Florida, there were a few bumps in the road. That’s to be expected because after all, college is just as much about life education as it is academic preparation. Still, we always went back to those words that Vickie spoke over her – focus to finish. And, she did. In fact, a few weeks ago, we attended yet another of India’s graduations as she completed her master’s degree.


This article isn’t just about my daughter finishing college. Though my pride in her and for her accomplishments is evident. It also isn’t about the village of people who have helped her during her educational and life journeys. Though there’s a lesson there for all of us about the impact a strong coalition of love and support can have on the life of a child. What this article is really about is helping more of our black and brown children “focus to finish.” This is about helping to increase the college completion rates for Hispanic and Black students.


College Enrollment is Up, But Completion Rates Still Lag Behind

In a March 2018 article for MarketWatch, Kari Paul wrote about the college graduation rates for Blacks. In it, she states, that while the high school graduation rate for Blacks has grown to 92%, there is a gap in college attendance and success. Other reports show enrollment in college has increased for Hispanics and Blacks. In 1996 only 35% of Hispanic and 36% of Black high school graduates enrolled in college. By 2016, that had grown to 47% for Hispanics and 43% for Blacks. But with enrollments trending in the right direction, we still have too many Hispanic and Black students who give up along the way. The college completion rates for these groups still lag behind.

In another article on graduation rates and race (April 2017), Emily Tate reports that White and Asian students earn college degrees at a rate of about 20 percentage points higher than Hispanic and Black students. Citing findings from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, she reports that Asian students had the highest graduation rate at 63.2 percent, followed by Whites at 62 percent, Hispanics at 45.8 percent, and Black students trailing at 38 percent. When looking at some of the largest colleges and universities in the U.S., The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education published a National Collegiate Athletic Association report, “The Nationwide Racial Gap in College Graduation Rates,” on January 18, 2018. In the report, the NCAA showed that 66 percent of all students entering Division I schools beginning in 2010 earned their degrees by 2016. However, the racial breakdown tells the real story: 77% Asians; 69% Whites; 60% Hispanics; and 46% Blacks completed their college degrees within six years of enrolling at a Division I college or university.

Four Things to Do to Increase College Completion Rates

The data is clear. Hispanic and Black students are enrolling in colleges and universities in greater numbers. We also now know that many of these students are falling short of their goal of attaining a degree. How can we help them finish? Here are four things that can help increase college completion for Hispanic and Black students.

  1. It starts with high school. High schools play a crucial role in preparing students for college. Ensuring Hispanic and Black students have access to rigorous coursework (e.g., Advanced Placement and Baccalaureate programs), study skills, test preparation, and college counseling services is vital.
  2. Select colleges and universities tailored to the student’s need. I know students have their dream schools, but the dream of attending college and earning a degree is paramount. Parents and high school guidance counselors will need to help students identify the right schools for them. Some students do well in smaller environments, while others can navigate larger settings with little difficulty. It is also a good thing to encourage students to apply to selective colleges and universities. These selective schools tend to have more resources to support the student’s educational needs (e.g., summer bridge programs, peer mentoring and tutoring support, well-stocked libraries and research centers). Hispanic and Black students should also consider attending a historically Black college or university (HBCU), particularly if the student’s need for racial and ethnic identity and support is high. However, be careful to do your homework on HBCU graduation rates, just as you would with other institutions. Only a handful of HBCUs have a graduation rate of 50 percent or higher. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper found that the six-year graduation rates at 20 HBCUs were 20 percent or lower in 2015. That means four out of five students who enrolled had not completed their bachelor’s degree six years later. Spelman College in Atlanta led all HBCUs with a 76 percent graduation rate.
  3. Follow the money. Encourage Hispanic and Black students to complete their financial aid applications early and to apply for as many scholarships as they can. One of the biggest reasons these students do not finish college is lack of money. There are many scholarships out there for minority students, first-generation college students, and for different fields of study. Talk to the financial aid counselors at the college to learn about sources available at the school. Make a decision to attend a college or university where the student will receive enough financial aid and scholarships to cover major expenses. This will relieve months, if not years, of stress for the student and the family.
  4. Check on student and intervene at earliest sign of trouble. When the student leaves for college, they are typically grown by the legal standard but don’t let that fool you. They need guidance and support. And, they need to know that the parents/guardians and their village are holding them accountable. Speak often with the student and ensure he/she is feeling comfortable, is accessing available resources, and is adjusting academically and socially in their new environment. At the first sign the student may be struggling, intervene. They may not like it or even think it’s necessary, but trust me, do it. You will never regret helping to keep your student in school. Make sure they are taking advantage of the resources available to them and are creating positive social networks that reinforce academic excellence.


We’ve all heard it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. I hope this article is helpful in getting your student off to a strong start and enabling them to “focus to finish.” While the tips provided here can apply to all students, I believe these will address those specific needs of Hispanic and Black students and ultimately close the college completion gap.

Related article: HBCU or PWI? Wrong Question, Right Opportunity

When we know better, we do better.

© 2018, Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved.


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