The October 25, 2007 edition of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education published an article on black students’ six-year graduation rates in colleges and universities nationwide. It showed that there remained a wide gap between the graduation rates of African-American students and those of majority students despite the slight increase in the former over the past three years. According to the article, “the lowest black student graduation rate” among all colleges and universities that are “rated as selective” occurred at Carleton College. Interviews with Scott Bierman, Dean of the College, and Paul Thiboutot, Dean of Admissions, reveal that black student graduation rates have long been a concern for the college. Several initiatives have already been implemented to tackle this issue and the college is developing strategies to deal with the obstacles that African-American students face at Carleton.
Paul Thiboutot emphasizes that the study conducted by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education uses data only from the year 2005, when 10 of Carleton’s 16 African-American students from the class of 1999 had graduated. This amounted to a 66% 6-year graduation rate of the black student population. Interestingly, in the following year, Carleton had a 100% graduation rate for its black students as all 12 African-American students from the class of 2006 had graduated within 6 years. The statistics need to be examined carefully and in context to gain a complete understanding of the situation at Carleton College. Percentage figures can be misleading; in years when there is a relatively smaller cohort of African-American students at Carleton College, every individual makes a significant impact on the percentage graduation rates.
Regardless of the report published by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, however, the college recognizes that concrete steps need to be taken to improve the experiences of black students at Carleton College. According to Paul Thiboutot, various studies conducted show that two main factors significantly affect the success of African-American students here–the type and amount of academic preparation that students have had before coming to Carleton and their ability to adapt and adjust culturally. Initiatives are thus developed to focus on these factors to make the transition to Carleton easier for black students.
The college began participating in the Posse Program in Chicago in 2000. Under this program, students from public high schools in the Chicago area are selected to form multicultural teams called ‘Posses.’ They are then trained intensively for enrollment at the best universities nationwide. Every year, Carleton enrolls 10 students through the Posse Program to give them a chance to gain a top-class education. Each Posse meets regularly throughout the term and is a support group for all its members. Carleton also runs a one-week, all expenses paid, summer academic program called the Carleton Liberal Arts Experience (CLAE) for African-American students or those who have interest in African-American culture. 50 high school students who are current sophomores are selected to take a variety of courses and workshops at Carleton, with all expenses paid. “CLAE is an attempt to broaden the quality and quantity of African-American base-pool applicants,” explains Paul Thiboutot. “It is a recruitment effort to identify those students who may be better suited to adjust to Carleton and for the students to figure out if Carleton is the right place for them.”
Besides these academic programs, the Office of Intercultural Life is continually
planning programs to foster support for minority students and to cultivate a safe and comfortable environment for them. Carleton will also be hosting Dr. Sue Rankin on campus this year to allow her to assess the campus climate for students of color. She is a Senior Diversity Planning Analyst at The Pennsylvania State University and has researched on and written various reports on the impact of diversity initiatives in the academy. Besides assessing the campus climate, she will suggest strategies for developing a strategic plan for diversity at Carleton. The college hopes that these efforts will help to improve the Carleton experience for African-American students.
Scott Bierman believes that solely 6-year graduation rates should not be used to measure the success of the initiatives that are implemented. “The problem with dwelling on [them] is that it takes a very long time to even begin to sort out what might be working. For example, the most recent six-year graduation rate data we could get comes from 2007. But these are students who entered Carleton in 2001. Since a significant number of students who never graduate are those students leaving Carleton in their first two years, these students would be impacted by programs in 2001-02 and 2002-03 and not ever be impacted by any new initiatives or programs that the college has implemented since then.” He states that year-to-year retention rates are thus more effective in helping to understand the effectiveness of initiatives. He also emphasizes the importance of student participation in the college’s attempt to assess itself and improve its environment for all students. “If you do only one community-minded thing this year, take the time to honestly and fully complete the survey,” he says.