ANNAPOLIS – Black students in Maryland’s community colleges are graduating and transferring to four-year state schools in higher numbers than before, but their success rates are still trailing those of the general student body.
An analysis of Maryland Higher Education Commission data reveals the gap for success rates between black students and all students narrowed from 19 percent in 1988 to 14 percent in 1993.
A student is counted as successful in this analysis if he or she graduates or transfers to a four-year-state school within four years of study.
Commission statistics show that 33.5 percent of all students who enrolled in Maryland community colleges in 1993 were successful, but only 19.1 percent of black students were. That’s a 14.4 percent gap.
Nearly 38.9 percent of all community college students who enrolled in 1988 were successful, but only 19.6 percent of black students were. The gap in success rates: 19.3 percent.
Part of the reason for the improvements in minority student success may be increased awareness of the problem, said Kay Bienen, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
That awareness led all 16 of Maryland’s community colleges to put in place programs to try to end disparities, according to a 1998 accountability report from the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Among them are faculty-student mentoring and diversity support groups.
Despite the gains, all of Maryland’s community colleges with statistically significant black populations still show black students succeeding at lower rates than the general student body – regardless of the college’s location or student body size. Allegany, Carroll, Cecil, Garrett and Wor-Wic community colleges didn’t have black populations high enough to be counted in the analysis.
However, the commission’s figures showed that black students attending the only two community colleges with majority-black populations – in Prince George’s County and Baltimore City – did fare somewhat better than those at the majority-white schools. The class of ’93’s gap in success rates was narrowest at the majority-black schools.
Community college officials say it is impossible to give just one reason why black students are succeeding less often. They offered several educated guesses: minority students sometimes take insufficient college preparatory classes in high school; have to work their way through college; have a lack of family support for their academic endeavors; or feel a sense of isolation on majority-white campuses.
“Why is there a disparity?” asks Janice Watley, coordinator of a minority support group at Prince George’s Community College. “There’s been a disparity between black and white achievement for 200 years. It’s years and years of inaccessibility, lack of resources and lack of support.”
“With no encouragement at home, it’s hard” for some students, said West Brooks, an 18-year-old minority student at PGCC.
The Baltimore City Community Colleges have the highest percentage of black students in Maryland’s system, showing 82 percent in fall 1997. These colleges also had the narrowest gap in success rates of all 16 community colleges: 20.5 percent of black students in the class of 1993 had graduated or transferred within four years, compared to 20.7 percent for all students, for a gap of less than 1 percent.
PGCC had the second highest percentage of black students in the state, with 69 percent in fall 1997. It also had a narrow gap in success rates: 17 percent of black students in the class of 1993 succeeded within four years, compared to 26.5 percent for all students. That’s a gap of 9.5 percent.
Data from schools with low black student populations are less reliable, but show minority students faring less well.
Hagerstown Junior College in Washington County has one of the highest percentages of white students in the Maryland system, with 89 percent in 1997. At the school, 36.6 percent of all students in the class of ’93 graduated or transferred to four- year state schools within four years. Only 20 percent of blacks did, for a gap of 16.6 percent.
At Chesapeake College in Queen Anne’s County, where 86 percent of the student body was white last year, 42.5 percent of all students in the class of 1993 graduated or transferred to four-year state schools. Only 11.2 percent of blacks did, for a gap of 31.3 percent.
Jim Jackson, minority recruiter for Anne Arundel Community College, has been working with minority students in high schools for the last 15 months, trying to make sure they are better prepared for college.
Often, he said, high school graduation requirements don’t match college entrance requirements. And because community colleges have open admissions, they must accept all students, some of whom are unqualified and are placed in remedial non- credit classes to bring them up to par. Consequently, those students may find themselves struggling to keep up.
“Preparation is the key piece,” Jackson said.
That’s why he visits all 12 public high schools in the county, telling students and parents how best to prepare for college.
If a student’s parents haven’t been to college, “they don’t recognize the mismatch [in requirements] between high school graduation and college admissions,” he said.
Waiting until a student’s senior year to begin preparing for college is too late, he said. Students need to know early that they need three years of high school math, not two, and four years of English, not three, he said.
James D. Tschechtelin, president of Baltimore City Community Colleges, said minority achievement problems run deeper than lack of preparation. More than 75 percent of all students have to work to support themselves at the city’s majority-black colleges, he said.
When a student is faced with rent checks, car payments and baby-sitter fees, next’s week chemistry takes a back seat. “The culture of a college has to change for the numbers to go up,” he said.
Tschechtelin said BCCC has identified problems known to lead to failure and tried to minimize them.
For example, BCCC has limited late registration. Research at the college has shown that students who enroll in classes after they’ve begun receive poorer grades than those who register on time. By limiting latecomers, the college hopes to increase success rates.
The college also requires all first-time, full-time students to attend a new-student orientation, in hopes of linking them to campus services, clubs and extracurricular activities. Students who are involved in campus life – from athletics to drama – tend to have higher success rates than those who don’t participate, Tschechtelin said.
Vince O. Leggett, an academic advisor at Anne Arundel Community College, said a sense of comfort on campus is vital, which is why he leads a support group for black male students.
He said black students at predominantly white community colleges may feel isolated. At AACC, where 80 percent of the student population was white in 1997, it’s a very real possibility that a black student may be the only black person in his class, he said.
Leggett also helps to oversee a mentoring program at the college, which pairs at-risk students with members of the faculty and staff. Mentors act as academic advice-givers and as a referral service for participating students. They can also help with transfer and graduation advice. “What we don’t want to happen is that we had an opportunity to do something and did nothing,” Leggett said. -30-