Six Critical Strategies for Increasing HBCU Retention and Graduation Rates

What specifically are the most successful HBCUs doing, or what can they do to increase student retention and graduation? Drawing on a combination of personal education and leadership experiences, observations and research, what follows are a five proven strategies associated with student success.
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The task that gave me the greatest level of satisfaction at the three institutions where I had the privilege of serving as chancellor was the opportunity to present nearly 12,000 graduates with their degrees. From Indiana University East to University of Michigan Flint to North Carolina Central University, no matter how lengthy the ceremony or the weather conditions, commencement was a special time for graduates and members of their family. Although each of these public universities served students from significantly different economic and ethnic backgrounds, they all had two things in common-- an unswerving commitment to providing students with a high quality learning experience and a credential with value in the marketplace. Some of my most prized mementoes include handwritten thank-you notes, cards and graduation photos dating back to more than 20 years. Even now, I receive an occasional career update, via email or Facebook, from one of those graduates of long ago!

The last institution I had the pleasure of serving before retiring from active university leadership will always occupy a special place in my heart in part because it is an HBCU, and like my alma mater, has a phenomenal record of producing successful men and women in nearly every employment sector. Over the course of the past two years, I have had the opportunity to not only reflect on what HBCUs can do potentially do to increase retention and degree attainment levels, but to assist a number of them with implementing a focused set of initiatives to do so. The truth be told, most HBCUs know what they need to do to increase student academic success but for some reasons many appear reluctant to take the appropriate action. In fact, I am convinced that HBCUs have much to teach other universities, including highly selective and well-endowed universities, about how to increase student success generally, not just minority students. Ironically, the September 20, 2014 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education included an insert containing an insightful compilation of essays that I would encourage all university leaders concerned about student success to read.

So what specifically are the most successful HBCUs doing, or what can they do to increase student retention and graduation? Drawing on a combination of personal education and leadership experiences, observations and research, what follows are a five proven strategies associated with student success.

Strategy #1: Establish High Expectations

Even a cursory review of the history of some of America's oldest and most revered HBCUs reveals that they did not allow race, racism or economic circumstances to deter them from establishing high expectations relative to the intellectual, social, moral and leadership development of their students. Not only were there high expectations for students, but there were high expectations for administrators, instructional and support staff as well. Although every student did not graduate, doing so was a clear expectation on the part of benefactors, the college community and the families of those fortunate enough to send their child to college. Tuskegee University founder, Booker T. Washington, internationally renowned sociologist, W. E. B. Dubois, along with leading civil rights activists and founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Mary McLeod Bethune, were among the most vocal proponents regarding the need for black colleges to establish and maintain high academic expectations. The importance of this goal is just as significant today as it was in the era of these three social and intellectual giants. Moreover, I am convinced that the enforcement of high academic standards is not in conflict with the commitment of HBCUs to provide access, and that the establishment and pursuit of such standards make HBCUs more competitive and responsive to the educational interests of a wide array of students.
The moral of the academic expectations story is simple: access without excellence is hollow!

Strategy #2: Expect and Reward Excellence in Teaching

Teaching excellence must be the sine qua non for hiring, retaining and promoting faculty members at HBCUs--anything less is unacceptable. Teaching excellence at both public and private HBCUs was one of their defining characteristics long before appreciable numbers of faculty possessed terminal degrees. In fact, it was not until 1965 when Congress approved Part A of Title III, Strengthening Developing Institutions, that a national effort was launched to increase the number of HBCU faculty with PhDs or other terminal degrees. With the evolution of regional accreditation standards requiring faculty to maintain an appropriate balance between teaching, research and service, many HBCUs revised their requirements for promotion and tenure by following those to which comprehensive Predominately White Institutions adhered, often to the detriment of the students they served.

As HBCUs sought to hire faculty to deal with growing enrollments in the 1980s and 1990s and into the early 2000s, they found that prospective black faculty members with a terminal degree had an array of options and often elected to work at PWIs because of higher salaries, lower teaching loads and relatively better prepared students in many instances. Thus, HBCUs, in many instances, increasingly found themselves hiring faculty who lacked an appreciation for their history, mission and commitment to serve first generation and low-wealth students. Often, many of these faculty members viewed their role as one of presenting information and the students' role as of grasping it. Further, such faculty members are less engaged in the life of the university and are not as likely to mentor students. Students often complain about their inability to understand many of their instructors and of feeling disrespected and discouraged. During my last chancellorship I actually had several international faculty members tell me that they did not feel that students were capable of exceling academically in the disciplines they taught! Needless to say, this made for quite a terse conversation.

While the above referenced scenarios are not universal, they are far more prevalent than many university administrators and faculty members are willing to admit. One obvious strategy for addressing the issues that emanate from ineffective teaching is for HBCUs to invest heavily in faculty professional development to assist faculty in making the shift from teaching content to teaching students. There is a difference!

Strategy #3: Hold Leaders Accountable for Student Success

Contrary to what many may say, college and university leaders, irrespective of institutional type, wealth status or size, are ultimately as responsible for making sure that students succeed academically as they are for ensuring that the institution receives a clean audit, maintains accreditation, has a winning athletic program and is successful in raising much needed private funds. The leadership that fuels and sustains student success is distributed, intentional and focused. It has been my experience that when leaders are held accountable for institutional effectiveness, they are less likely to delegate authority to others without empowering them to do what needs to be done to ensure student success. Likewise, when leaders are held accountable, they are more likely to make certain that financial resources, no matter how scarce, are invested in activities that directly impact student success.

Strategy # 4: Increase the Quality of Services Provided to Students

Poor or inconsistent quality of services provided to students is the most persistent concern shared with me by students and their parents at every university where I have had the opportunity to work or consult. Yet, it is one of the least costly issues to correct. Quality service is based on "old school" values associated with respect, caring, commitment, communications, expectations and accountability. Every HBCU, indeed every university, should receive an "A" for how well they serve students. Administrators, faculty and staff are hired to teach, mentor and serve students. Persons who are not able to do what they were hired to do should be provided with the necessary professional development, held accountable and dismissed if they fail to perform their duties in a professional, passionate and compassionate manner
Strategy # 5: Embrace Change

The failure of HBCU leaders to embrace and lead comprehensive change is perhaps the greatest threat facing the vast majority of HBCUs in the foreseeable future. Just because a particular course, major or support activity has been funded for extended periods does not mean that it is effective and should be continued. It seems that everyone wants change but few want to change. It's always the "other" who needs to change, or so it seems! The president and his/her leadership team must be the point people for implementing needed institutional changes in every area of university operations: academic programs, administrative and student affairs, fiscal and facilities management. Every activity and investment must be focused on student success and institutional effectiveness. Determining what needs to change is not rocket science. It begins with an objective and vigorous assessment of every university program or practice to determine its effectiveness in meeting institutional objectives and culminates in a commitment to follow through with needed changes.

The moral of the story is this: Change is the only constant there is and those who refuse to embrace change are destined to be left behind.

Strategy # 6: Focus and Follow-Through

Just because HBCU leaders, or any other leaders, know what works doesn't mean they'll do it. The recommendations of researchers and practitioners alike are clear: focusing and following through on a small set of effective and scalable activities is more important than pursuing a litany of activities that have emotional appeal but limited objective data to demonstrate their effectiveness.
The moral of the story is this: It's not a matter of how many things you do but how well you do those things that yield demonstrable results.

Whether I have identified the right six strategies for increasing HBCU student retention and graduation is a matter of conjecture; but two things are certain. First, HBCUs can and must do a more effective job of increasing degree attainment. Second, HBCU leaders must assume a more direct role in creating, supporting and sustaining a culture that promotes students success.

Let us begin!

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