ETSU working to improve lagging graduation rates for black students

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JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University’s graduation rates for black students have remained at or near the 30% mark dating back to the freshman class of 2007, according to Tennessee Higher Education Commission data.

In fact, for first-time students who enrolled full-time in the most recent reporting years of 2007, 2008 and 2009, ETSU ranked worst in the state among the Tennessee Board of Regents and University of Tennessee systems for the percentage of black students who graduated within six years. For the 2009 cohort year, less than three out of 10 black students graduated within six years.

Dr. Kenyatta Lovett is the executive director of Complete Tennessee. He says institutions and communities across the state need to do more to eliminate completion gaps so that all students can have an equal chance at success. Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Complete Tennessee’s goals are to increase access and graduation rates statewide.

“It takes a village, I hate to say that, to really support a student to graduate and be successful,” Dr. Lovett said. “It’s everyone’s job to get there, but it takes a lot more effort than we’re doing right now with students, because we have mostly first generation students, a lot of low-income students and definitely students of color who have maybe challenges coming in.”

“You’re a black man and to see these numbers and to see such a gap, how does that make you feel in this state?” we asked Dr. Lovett.

“It’s tragic,” he said.

Dr. Lovett says in addition to more community (secondary schools, non-profits, municipalities) and institutional support, there needs to be more efforts to make black students feel welcome on college campuses.

“If a student doesn’t feel like they belong or they’re included, they’re not going to stay at your institution,” he said. “Belongingness and inclusion is very real. It’s a very real part of a student’s experience in college.”

ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland recognizes there’s a problem.

“Are the numbers what we want them to be? No,” he said.

In recent weeks, he announced the creation of a diversity task force to help improve graduation rates for minority students. He says the university is also committed to programs that help those students transition to college, remain in school and ultimately succeed.

“We have put in place some intervention strategies early,” Dr. Noland said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us that we’re providing more support for those students than other students who might have a different set of challenges.”

Dr. Lovett says Georgia State University in Atlanta is considered a national leader when it comes to improving graduation rates for black students. According to the most recent federal data, Georgia State graduates 56% of its black students. Dr. Noland says he has Georgia State’s playbook on his desk. He says ETSU is doing a lot of the same things, however, ETSU is four years behind and is home to a campus of significantly fewer black students.

The graduation rates for all students at ETSU aren’t much better. They have remained at or near the 40% mark for the last several years. 42.1% of students who started at ETSU in 2009 graduated within six years, according to state records. That number is below the federal average among public universities with bachelors programs. The national average is 48%, according to an analysis of the most recent U.S. Department of Education data.

Dr. Noland says ETSU is committed to increasing its graduation rates for all students. In fact, the university is setting what it feels like is a realistic graduation rate goal of 60% by 2025.

Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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