University System of Maryland schools have had mixed success in improving the graduation rates of minority and low-income students, according to an annual progress report released this week.
Some colleges, including the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have been able to boost minority and low-income achievement. But at other schools, the gaps between those students and middle-class whites have increased in recent years.
"I was shocked to see the numbers," said Frank M. Reid III, a university system regent and pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore. "But I think the system is committed to closing the gap."
The university system, which consists of 12 of the state's public institutions, has been working to cut in half the so-called achievement gap by 2015 and eliminate it by 2020. The new report examined six-year graduation rates and retention rates — or the rate at which students return to school the next year — for first-time freshmen for each year since 2008. Some colleges are on course to meet the goals, while others are struggling, according to the report.
Coppin State, one of the state's historically black universities, has the lowest six-year graduation rate in the system at 13 percent, a decline from 16 percent in 2008. At Towson University, black students graduated at rates above the campus average as recently as 2010, but have now fallen about 5 percentage points behind other students.
At a committee meeting Thursday of the university system's Board of Regents, system officials outlined steps they have taken to reduce the achievement gaps, including redesigning courses to be more interactive, targeting financial aid and starting early warning systems for at-risk students. Officials did not pinpoint reasons for some of the backsliding but said they face challenges from an increasing number of low-income students and students' lack of preparation for college when they arrive.
The class that began this fall will be the basis for the six-year graduation rates examined in 2020, leaving officials hopeful that the programs they have put into place will begin to pay off to meet goals set in 2007.
"If the institutions are going to eliminate any of these gaps, it has to be done today," said Chad Muntz, the university system's institutional research director.
At the system's historically black institutions — Coppin State, Bowie State and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — the percentages of students who graduate in six years and are retained for the second year have declined since 2008. The achievement of low-income students has also declined at those institutions.
Bowie State's six-year graduation rate has declined to 35 percent from 40 percent in 2008, while the rate at UMES has declined from 38 percent in 2008 to 32 percent.
While Coppin State has the lowest six-year graduation rate in the system, officials there have argued that the rate does not reflect the success of its students, most of whom are low-income, nontraditional or supporting families.
College Park and UMBC are expected to meet the goal of cutting achievement gaps in half. At UMBC, only Hispanic students underperform compared with other students. And despite the slippage at Towson, officials said the class set to graduate next year is on track to meet the system's goals for minority and low-income students.
The retention rates similarly offered a mixed bag, with some gaps narrowing and others widening.
For example, black students at Towson have had higher second-year retention rates than the campus average since at least 2008, though those numbers have declined along with the campus average.
Dave Fedorchak, Towson's director of admissions, said the drop in the graduation rate occurred after the university offered admission to Baltimore students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. What the university found, he said, was that some of those students had low GPAs and SAT scores and often struggled with their university classes. "Academically, they were at risk at the beginning," he said.
The university still offers the program, but now requires students to have a minimum GPA and test scores before being admitted. In addition, the university has offered a number of special programs to support students who might be at risk.
Some colleges have graduation and retention rates that are below the average for the university system as a whole, and have been directed by university system officials to focus on boosting achievement for all students.
Frostburg State University has made progress in closing the gaps for its black and Hispanic students, with Hispanic students graduating at a higher rate than the college's average. But Frostburg's overall six-year graduation rate of 47 percent is still below the system average of 62 percent.
At the University of Baltimore, which has total graduation rates that are lower than the system average, low-income students outperform other students. But only about 25 percent of Hispanic students graduate in six years, compared with UB's overall average of 32 percent. Black students at UB graduate at about the campus average.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.