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​​Why white students are far more likely to graduate than Black students at public universities

Remedial education, financial challenges and even just a jarring campus culture can stymie students.
Illustration of white college graduates holding diplomas while a Black college graduate looks on from the distance.
Nationally, white students at public colleges are 2½ times more likely to graduate than Black students and 60 percent more likely to graduate than Latino students.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

This article about college graduation gaps was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. 

When Diamante Hare stepped onto Northeastern Illinois University’s campus in Chicago for the first time in 2018, he was gambling with thousands of dollars of grants, scholarships and loans — as well as his future. As gambling tends to go, the odds were against him.

Away from his predominantly Black West Chicago neighborhood for the first time, Hare felt uncomfortable. He was unsure what to expect or how he would fit in. There were other Black students on campus, but of the 20 Black freshmen he remembers becoming friendly with at the start of the year, 17 didn’t make it past the first semester, he said.

Hare, a senior, is on track to graduate without having transferred, withdrawn temporarily or gone part time. That’s unusual. At Northeastern Illinois, only 11 percent of Black students graduated within six years in 2019. Even fewer graduated within four, as Hare plans to do. 

White students at Northeastern Illinois University are five times more likely to graduate than Black students and more than three times more likely to graduate than Latino students, according to federal data.

The problem is pervasive: Nationally, white students at public colleges are 2½ times more likely to graduate than Black students and 60 percent more likely to graduate than Latino students.

Image: Diamante Hare, a senior at Northeastern Illinois University, felt uncomfortable and out of place when he first started in 2018. Of the 20 Black freshmen he remembers becoming friendly with at the start of that year, he said 17 didn’t make it past the first semester.
Diamante Hare, a senior at Northeastern Illinois University, felt uncomfortable and out of place when he started in 2018. Camilla Forte / The Hechinger Report

A variety of reasons contribute to the gaps. Financial pressure — whether sheer lack of funds or the need to hold down paying jobs while in college — is a primary reason. Spending excessive time in remedial classes that carry no college credit but drain financial aid is another. Many Black and Latino students may also drop out because they feel excluded or isolated.

In some states, the gaps in graduation rates are particularly acute: At every four-year public college in Illinois and Missouri for which data were available, for example, there were gaps of at least 14 percentage points between white and Black students in 2019.

Illinois, which has the sharpest disparities between Black and white students, ranks fourth worst for the gap between Latino and white students.

Northeastern Illinois has about 5,600 undergraduates, of whom 39 percent are Hispanic, 27 percent are white and 11 percent are Black. Over half of all students receive Pell Grants, the federal aid for low-income families. Many students are over age 25; many attend part time. Working long hours outside school can also thwart progress toward graduation.

“We know that these obstacles exist, and we haven’t addressed them,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher education policy, practice and research at the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping students of color and low-income students.

If colleges are willing to enroll a diverse mix of students, he said, they should be willing to invest in the necessary support services to help those students graduate. Some colleges, including Northeastern Illinois, are working to fix that gap with new programs and scholarships.

Feliza Ortiz-Licon, chief policy and advocacy officer at Latinos for Education, a nonprofit group, said administrators and educators who want to address racial disparities in college completion need to look at the entire system and take responsibility for their part in it.

“To an extent, yes, hold K-12 accountable, but now they’re your students. What are you going to do?” Ortiz-Licon said. “You can’t continue focusing on K-12 and what they didn’t do.”

The financial pressure of college

For senior Edgar Martinez, 28, for example, even financial aid is out of reach; he immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager and doesn’t have citizenship or any protective legal status, so he’s working to pay for college, juggling shifts at a grocery store and waiting tables. He said Northeastern Illinois would have seemed more welcoming to him if it had offered more flexible class times.

College tuition and fees are so high in most places that some students risk not finishing their degrees because they run out of funds or because they have to work outside jobs that take time away from their ability to study and do well in their courses.

Francisco X. Gaytán, Northeastern Illinois’ former associate provost for student success and retention, said the university sees itself as a “last chance university.” With acceptance rates of about 60 percent for first-time students and more than 70 percent for transfer students, he said, it accepts students who are unlikely to be accepted at other four-year institutions. 

“We give students that chance that other schools won’t give them,” said Gaytán, who this fall took a job at North Park University in Chicago. “But the chance really just meant, ‘We’ll let you in the door.’”

Once students arrive, Gaytán said, they need support and advice, often to counter their parents, who may rationalize that if a student is in class for only 15 hours a week, he or she should be able to work during the remaining hours.

Gaytán said there has to be a way to communicate to parents that it’s not always best for students to balance class work with jobs, and not because their children are lazy. 

For Latino students, especially first generation college-goers, “It’s not just ‘échale ganas,’ it’s not just ‘si, se puede,’” he said, using the Spanish phrases for “Go for it” and “Yes, you can.” 

Difficulty catching up and feeling included

Other students confront the challenge of having had inadequate high school preparation. They must then take remedial classes in math or English before they can move on to college-level courses. Remedial classes cost time and money but carry no credits, meaning students who enroll in them take longer to graduate and consume more of their financial aid eligibility.

Alexis Smith, a senior majoring in communications, began taking remedial courses at a nearby community college in January 2015 and eventually finished her associate degree before transferring to Northeastern Illinois in January 2019.

Remedial classes cost time and money but carry no credits, meaning students who enroll in them take longer to graduate and consume more of their financial aid eligibility.

As a Black woman with a physical disability, Smith struggled to find community on campus. She uses a wheelchair and said she has been disappointed not to have found any affinity groups for students like her. She said she tried to join a sorority on campus but was turned down.

“What is it about me?” Smith said she asks herself. “Is it because I’m Black and most of the girls in the sorority are either white or Hispanic? Or does it not have anything to do with race at all? Is it because I have a disability? I’ve never seen a woman a part of a sorority with a disability before. Do they feel like I look too different?”

Ortiz-Licon said it’s often assumed that students will easily adapt to their new environments, but that’s not always true.

In some cases, Black and Latino students feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide for their families, either financially or with tasks like child care for younger siblings, she said —  which professors may not see as valid reasons to extend assignments.

The misunderstandings and feelings of discomfort often extend beyond the classroom. Ortiz-Licon said she worked with Latino student who joined the international club on his campus because “as a first-generation, working-class, Mexican American undergrad student, he felt like an international student.”

The student was invited to a social gathering that asked him to bring ingredients to contribute to a charcuterie board, she said.

“He had no idea what the host was talking about, so he opted out,” Ortiz-Licon said.

It’s most often not just one obstacle or one incident that makes a student decide to leave school, researchers and educators say. Inadequate housing can leave students with no quiet spaces to study. Students may arrive on campus from high schools where they were made to feel inferior academically, stifling their confidence. And the racial wealth gap, which is pronounced even when Black and white families have similar levels of education, can mean limited financial help. The cascade of circumstances can leave students feeling hopeless about their ability to graduate.

Closing the gap 

Rutgers University-Newark, part of New Jersey’s state university, has raised its graduation rates for Black students well above the national average. Recognizing that students often hesitate to seek help, counselors set up “listening tables” at common gathering points on campus. Doctors and counselors were also posted in academic building lobbies, student lounges and cafeterias to offer counseling and wellness advice.

At Old Dominion University, a public college in Virginia, about one-third of the students are Black, and they graduate at about the same rate as white students. In addition to clubs such as the Ebony Impact Gospel Choir, an association for Black engineering students and Brother 2 Brother for Black and Latino male students, a coalition of Black faculty and staff members offers mentoring and advising to Black students, and there is a similar coalition to help Latino students. 

Along with orientations and admission seminars open to all students, there is also an institute for leadership development specifically for Black and Latino students.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to help students across the finish line,” said Don Stansberry, vice president of student enrollment and engagement at Old Dominion. “We know that doesn’t happen automatically. We know that it’s a challenge to ask for help when you need it, and we know we have to take extra measures to encourage students to do that.”

Luvia Moreno, assistant dean and director of undocumented student resources at Northeastern Illinois, said many incoming students don’t have the support systems they had in high school. “That’s another barrier right there,” she said. “Unless you have someone who can guide you through that process, it’s very hard to get into higher ed and navigate the system.”

“Unless you have someone who can guide you through that process, it’s very hard to get into higher ed and navigate the system.”

To address that, Northeastern Illinois has been developing programs to help Black and Latino students adjust to college.

Proyecto Pa’Lante is a program to help Latino students and students who are interested in learning more about Latino culture during their first two years. It gives them access to bilingual and bicultural advising and mentoring; membership also makes them eligible for a program-specific scholarship.

The school’s Project Success was designed specifically to recruit and retain African American students. Students accepted to the program get scholarships, take academic skill-building courses and get special advising.

Project Success students also get priority consideration for the university’s summer transition programs, for students who want to develop stronger foundations in specific academic subjects or get an early taste of college. 

IMage: Northeastern Illinois University
At Northeastern Illinois University, as at many other public colleges and universities across the country, white students are more likely to graduate than Black and Latino students.Camilla Forte / The Hechinger Report

“We’re trying to figure out how to better streamline those services, how to better communicate those services to students, to make sure that they are making use of those services and that we are better able to monitor how the students are doing so that we can increase their retention and their graduation,” Moreno said.

Better communication might have helped Diamante Hare and his freshman-year friends, but he said he wasn’t aware of any such programs and therefore didn’t take part in any. He did get help from a special adviser: his older brother, Marvelas Hare, a college counselor who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012.

Marvelas Hare’s advice from afar wasn’t helping enough, so he went to campus to visit, Diamante Hare said, “because I didn’t want to speak to anybody.” He said his brother encouraged him to introduce himself and tell people what he wanted to major in — especially the Black faculty.

After that, Hare felt more comfortable on campus, saying hi and making conversation. He said that led him to strong mentors and help in applying for extra scholarships that eased the financial burden of college. He made friends and started a basketball club that was active until the pandemic disrupted his sophomore year.

In June, while working part time stocking shelves at a Walmart in south Chicago and taking two summer classes, Hare got an on-campus job with the summer transition program. He worked directly with the Project Success cohort — younger Black students making the same gamble he’d made when he enrolled in 2018.

The odds for Hare now appear good. He expects to graduate in the spring with a degree in communications and media and hopes to work his way into a career in sports communications.

He has continued to be an all-around mentor to the summer transition students, even helping some find their classes during the first week of the semester and helping others coordinate rides to school.

“I just wish that my first year that I had somebody to do that for me,” Hare said. “I didn’t want to speak to no one, and I was uncomfortable — I didn’t know where to go. So that was one of my biggest reasons to help them, is to show them something that I never had.”