The case against the case against historically black colleges?.There?s been a bit of discussion in the blogosphere recently about the very low graduation rates at historically black colleges, prompted by a New York Times story (?Little Noticed Crisis at Black Colleges?) printed on August 3. The Times? reporter, Samuel G. Freedman, worried that these schools are graduating too few of their students?only 38% nationally?and indulged in some earnest, Times-style hand-wringing. The colleges themselves seemed to blame black culture: ”The single biggest factor is a lack of motivation,? Dr. Jacqueline Fleming, the director of Texas Southern’s academic center, told the Times. ?Their world is BET, ghetto rap, going to school dressed like you’re going to a club. They’re here because their grandmother said to be here, or because their parole officer said it was this or jail.”

This is obviously an important story for anyone concerned with the solid functioning of the meritocracy?historically black schools (HB) serve an enormous number of students from educationally underserved African-American communities in the South, and the success or failure of these schools at graduating those students helps determine how many of them can enter the professional class. I think there?s good reason to believe that the HB schools are actually doing a pretty good job. There?s a good case to be made that the main reason for the shockingly low graduation rates isn?t race, or culture, or any lack of motivation?it’s simply that these schools tend to draw from very poor populations. (More below the fold.)

As we crunched the numbers for the upcoming (and totally spectacular!) Washington Monthly College Rankings, we noticed that a school?s graduation rate correlated very closely with the percentage of its student body receiving Pell Grants?federal funds that are the best available measure of how many poor students a given school enrolls. The statistical correlation was clear: The more poor students at a given school, the lower its graduation rate tended to be. Because of this, it seemed unfair to us to compare graduation rates universally: sure, Columbia graduates 92 percent of its students and UCLA only 87 percent, but that doesn?t necessarily mean that Columbia is doing a better job. UCLA?s students are much more likely to come from poor and working-class backgrounds, so it?s got a much more difficult job to do.

One of our goals for the project was to measure each college?s contribution to social mobility: How well was each college doing at taking poor kids and getting them college degrees? By running a statistical regression, we could determine what a given school?s predicted graduation rate should be, based on the number of Pell Grant recipients. Penn State and Central Michigan, for instance, both have student bodies of which 25% receive Pell grants?the same socioeconomic makeup. This means that both schools had identical predicted graduation rates?60%.

But Penn State actually graduates 82% of its students, while Central Michigan graduates 42%. Even though they have similar student bodies socioeconomically, Penn State is doing something better than Central Michigan is doing?Penn State is over-performing its predicted graduation rate, while Central Michigan is under-performing its predicted graduation rate. We compared each school?s predicted graduation rate with its actual rate, and gave each school a score that indicates how much it over- or under-performs its predicted rate.

So back to the historically black colleges. One of the surprising things we found, especially given the recent spate of negative press, was that some HB schools did astoundingly well in our social mobility rankings?that is, they graduated far higher proportions of their student bodies than most schools with similar socioeconomic distributions. South Carolina State (HB), for instance, finished fourth of all the schools in the country: its predicted graduation rate, given its high numbers of Pell recipients, was only 20%, but it actually graduates 49%. Jackson State (HB) finished sixth (predicted rate 11%; actual rate 37%). Even Texas Southern, Freedman?s poster child for the non-achievement of historically black schools, did better than an average school would have: its predicted graduation rate is 14%; its actual rate is 15%. Every single one of the HB schools on our ?national universities? list, in fact, outperformed its predicted graduation rate.

A few comparisons: The University of Memphis (not HB) has almost an identical portion of Pell Grant recipients as does Howard University (HB). Both have predicted graduation rates of 50% but Howard graduates 58% of its students and Memphis only 33%. South Carolina State (HB), where 65% of students receive Pell grants, has the same graduation rate as Ball State (not HB), where only 23% of students receive the federal payments.

So what to make of all this? Freedman is still right that 15% is an absurdly low portion of students for any college to graduate, and Texas Southern ought to be doing better. And our measure is admittedly not perfect. But if you account for the poverty of the incoming class, its hard to argue that the HB colleges as a whole are serving their students poorly. It seems more likely that there is something truly heroic happening at Jackson State, which has the highest portion of its students receiving Pell grants of any of the 245 ?national universities? in the country?the poorest population of any school there is–and yet still manages to graduate 37% of its students. The low graduation rates at the HB schools seem to me far less a function of poor educational quality, or of some vague but pernicious racially culture of failure, than a simple matter of socioeconomic class. The HB colleges, many of which enroll students who have few other options for higher education, seem to be doing pretty well with what they?ve got.

One last caveat: Freedman notes that black students at HB schools graduate at much lower rates than do black students at elite schools. I suspect that this is at least in part due to class differences: my guess is that the black students who enroll at Cornell come from much wealthier backgrounds than those that enroll at Alabama A&M. But the data are not precise enough to know either way: We don?t know the average parental income level for blacks at each university. So it may be, as the Times article implies, that it makes more sense for a black parent to send their child to an integrated school than to an HB college. But I think my larger point stands: Given their inputs, the HB colleges are actually doing a good job at graduating their students.

For more of this kind of thing, of course, pick up the September issue of the Washington Monthly.

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Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a staff writer at the New Yorker.