The official federal graduation rates for colleges and universities that serve large numbers of black, Latino and Asian students significantly underestimate how many of their students are earning degrees, according to a new report.

“Pulling Back the Curtain,” released Wednesday by the American Council on Education and the Center for Policy Research and Strategy, shows graduation statistics that include more students than those issued annually by the federal government. The authors argue that their report represents a more complete picture of how minority-serving institutions, or MSIs, are performing.

“We believe the [federal] graduation rate data captures only a portion of the overall completion story occurring at MSIs,” said Jonathan Turk, senior policy research analyst for the American Council on Education.

The difference lies in which students were included and how they were tracked through college. Federal data includes only students who entered as full-time freshmen for the first time. The authors of Pulling Back the Curtain used data from the National Student Clearinghouse, which allowed them to include students who began their college careers as part-time students.

For example, the federal graduation rate for four-year public historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) was 34 percent, but the study found a rate of 43 percent for students who enrolled in 2007. The graduation rate for students who went full time was 62 percent.

There have been complaints for years about the limits of the federal method of tracking graduation rates, but this is the first study that has examined the impact on minority-serving institutions. This group of colleges and universities includes private and public institutions that enroll large percentages of black, Latino and/or Asian-American students, and low-income students, using specific definitions set by the federal government.

The study also followed students if they transferred out of one college and enrolled in another one. Federal data doesn’t track those students, even though more than one-third of students transfer at some point during their college careers, and many of them later graduate.

Results at predominantly black institutions (whose student bodies are at least 40 percent black or African-American and 50 percent low-income or first-generation college students) were similar. While the federal graduation rate at public four-year PBIs was 17 percent, the study found an overall completion rate of 34 percent within six years. For full-time students the graduation rate was 52 percent within six years.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. She’s also covered housing, schools, and local government for the Press of Atlantic City and The Chief-Leader newspaper and her work has appeared in the New York Times and the American Prospect. Kolodner is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an active New York City public school parent.