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The color of commencement

Recent efforts by Carnegie Mellon to boost black graduation rates went unnoticed this year.

A national journal ranked the University as having the lowest of such rates for black students among “high-ranking universities.” But the journal’s statistics do not match the statistics provided by Carnegie Mellon. The University’s rate in actuality may be much higher than reported, and even higher than some historically black colleges and universities.

The study was published in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education’s (JBHE) Winter 2005 edition in an article titled “Black Student College Graduation Rates Remain Low, But Modest Progress Begins to Show.”

Data were compiled from the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) regarding graduation rates from top universities across the country, including Harvard University, Stanford University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Among the rankings, Harvard’s percentage rates were highest, with approximately 95 percent of their black students graduating. According to the same study, Carnegie Mellon ranked well below that statistic, with only 65 percent of its black student population graduating.

Yet data released by the University, as well as the Department of Education, suggest that the graduation rate for black students at Carnegie Mellon is actually higher. According to the sources, the current rate at Carnegie Mellon is approximately 72 percent, seven percent greater than the 65 percent projected by JBHE.

“We get our statistics from the NCAA because they’re first to post them,” said Caroline Gelb, associate editor of JBHE in a phone interview, “and we feel that they’re probably pretty accurate.”

Understanding the Discrepancy

When reviewing the statistics provided by the NCAA, Carnegie Mellon’s black graduation rate was still listed as 72 percent.

What did match with JBHE’s statistic was the four-year average graduation rate, which included the most recent statistic and also the statistics from the three previous years.

It was Carnegie Mellon’s four-year average graduation rate that was listed as being 65 percent.
William Elliott, vice-president for enrollment at Carnegie Mellon, explained that there is a delay in reporting the statistics of classes that have already graduated.

“If we have 100 entering students and by the time they all graduate there are only 97, I track where those three students dropped down, and this process is done for over six years,” Elliott said
Elliott went on to explain that the statistics compiled from this process are what the federal government and the NCAA look at before publishing their data.

However, the current data does not describe the statistics for the most recently graduated class.

“Quite frankly, the numbers in a graduating class won’t get recorded until two years after you graduate,” Elliott said. “The current data is from the entering class of 1999, so any progress we’ve recently made in minority graduation rates won’t be seen for years and years.”

Carnegie Mellon’s situation

Even with the most current statistic, Carnegie Mellon remains significantly behind its peer institutions such as Stanford University, whose graduation rate is 89 percent for its black students.

According to JBHE, social environments on a given campus could lead to low graduation rates for its minority students, especially if those students leave that institution for another.

“Clearly, the racial climate at some colleges and universities is more favorable toward African-Americans than at other campuses,” stated Robert Slater, managing editor of JBHE and author of the article.

However, the graduation rate for black students at Carnegie Mellon is higher than the rate for black students at Howard University, which JBHE denotes as a “historically black university.”

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon also acknowledged the role that racial climate plays on campuses, saying that he hoped the current actions done by various organizations at Carnegie Mellon would help to improve the quality of student life, “thereby increasing the number of students who stay.”

“Our efforts then improve the quality of life for black and Hispanic students,” Cohon said. “And I think that our efforts have been successful.”

Current initiatives on campus

The Diversity Advisory Council (DAC) is Carnegie Mellon’s leading source for campus initiatives to boost the quality of life on campus for its minority students. The DAC also records the population levels of minority students on campus.

“Diversity, in all of the meanings of that word, is one of Carnegie Mellon’s strategic priorities,” Cohon stated in his letter included in the DAC’s annual report.

Cohon also chairs the council, which is responsible for current initiatives including minority recruitment.

One such initiative started by the the DAC is the Role Models Program, which provides “tutoring programs that bring Carnegie Mellon undergraduates into predominantly African-American city schools,” according to the DAC’s position paper.

Yet because the DAC’s initiatives occurred after 1999, Cohon and Elliott both noted the effects would not yet be seen.

“Our great improvement in retention, both for the overall student body, and for black and Hispanic students, is still very recent,” Cohon said.

“It’s still working its way through the system. It takes six years for that. To a journal like JBHE, it’s a subtlety that escapes them.”

JBHE did acknowledge the recent efforts to boost black graduation rates at Carnegie Mellon.
“Far more impressive is the 18-percentage-point increase in the black student graduation rate at Carnegie Mellon University [since 1998],” Slater stated in the article.

However, Carnegie Mellon’s reputation as being oriented toward the sciences was subject to some scrutiny by JBHE.

“Black students in the sciences often have been made to feel uncomfortable by white faculty and administrators who persist in beliefs that blacks do not have the intellectual capacity of succeed in these disciplines,” Slater wrote in his article. However, in a phone interview, Slater did not comment on how he obtained his data.

In response to JBHE, Elliott mentioned current initiatives at Carnegie Mellon geared toward boosting black participation in the sciences. Specifically, he mentioned reinstatement of the Summer Academy for Math and Sciences, a program that helps to bring minority students to Pittsburgh during the summer to get them interested in enrolling at Carnegie Mellon.

“Yes, at one time it may have been race exclusive,” Elliott said. “It is now not.”

And Carnegie Mellon is beginning to see progress. Cohon speculated that the retention rate for the current graduating class is somewhere between 80 and 90 percent.

“Subsequently the graduation rate will be higher,” Cohon said.