On December 31, 2014, an article by Liz Riggs titled “First-Generation College-Goers: Unprepared and Behind” appeared in The Atlantic. The article painted a bleak picture of incoming first-generation students admitted to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as being academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. The article also criticized HBCUs as being ill-equipped to prepare first-generation students to face the challenges and obstacles that come with becoming acclimated to campus culture, which eventually leads to poor graduation rates. However, these critiques regarding graduation rates fail to accurately convey the whole picture and it is important to highlight the resilient freshmen retention rates of some HBCUs and HBCUs overall.
Most critiques of graduation rates at HBCU are based on the statistic that only 11% of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will obtain their college degree within six years. While this argument may be valid based on sound data, it is also important to acknowledge that between fall 2008 and fall 2011, the U.S. News & World Report reported that four HBCUs had freshmen retention rates above 80%. Moreover, between fall 2009 and fall 2012, 12 HBCUs reported that more than 70% of students return after their first year. Among the 12 schools with the highest retention rate for first-year students, the average was 77%.
Many HBCUs are known for enrolling a high number of first-generation students who need academic remediation. However, HBCUs have a legacy of providing increased access to underserved students and often implement innovative strategies to support student success among first-generation students. Reported innovative strategies include success coaching, early alert programming, summer bridge programming for at risk students, pre-entry remedial programming, academic advisement tutorial services, first year experience programming, peer mentoring, peer tutoring, pre-orientation workshops, academic programming within residential halls, and the utilization of technology. HBCUs continue to provide remedial courses to students in addition to providing a supportive climate for first-generation students to grow.
While reported challenges faced by HBCUs include systematic and sustained campus initiatives to increase graduation rates, first-generation students often also face financial challenges and failure to socially integrate into campus culture. Rendon, Jalomo, and Nora (2004)’s concept of dual socialization recognizes the institution’s commitment to helping its students socially integrate within campus culture. When students fail to experience academic or social involvement at their institution, they are more likely to drop out. The high freshmen retention rates of HBCUs demonstrate the institution’s ability to effectively help their first-generation students integrate into their respective campus cultures. It also speaks to the institution’s ability to share the responsibility of helping students to socially integrate within their institution.
HBCUs continue to play an important role in reducing some of the barriers that hinder academic progress. The outcome of implementing effective retention programming for first-generation students will provide HBCU leaders with better insight on the academic challenges that first-generation students face and help them to implement best practices to improve freshmen retention outcomes.
Charmaine E. Troy is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education at Morgan State University.