UM earns high marks for black graduation rate President vows to increase efforts


The University of Maryland College Park, which has made an effort for years to recruit and graduate an increasing number of black students, can now point to results that are bringing the campus national recognition.

The university graduated more blacks than any other predominately white university in 1989, according to a survey by Black Issues in Higher Education magazine.

Blacks last year accounted for about 10 percent of College Park's total enrollment of 35,000.

The magazine survey found that in 1989, College Park conferred baccalaureate degrees on 286 blacks in 10 selected fields.

The next five predominately white schools in the rankings were Rutgers University -- New Brunswick with 255 graduates; Temple University, 254; the University of South Carolina -- Columbia, 228; the University of Pittsburgh, 213, and Southern Illinois University -- Carbondale, 207.

UM College Park officials said that their results were good but not good enough.

"I'm proud that we are the nation's leader," said President William E. Kirwan. "But I think it shows how far our society has to go before we can begin to feel that higher education is serving African-Americans and other minorities appropriately."

Overall, historically black universities still graduate the most blacks. The study showed Howard University leading the list of predominately white and historically black colleges with 744 graduates and Morgan State University in Baltimore in 10th place with 293.

Other state schools on the list included Towson State University, which ranked 43rd with 167 black graduates, Bowie State University, 54th with 150, and Coppin State College, 64th with 136.

The magazine compiled graduation results in these fields: business, communications, education, engineering/math, health sciences, law, letters, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences.

"If we have the highest graduation rate in the country, it just shows you other institutions are way off the mark," said Richard Harris, a black senior at the University of Maryland College Park.

Mr. Harris, who is from Columbia, is graduating this summer with a degree in African-American studies.

He is among those on campus who are concerned about the number of black students who begin studies at College Park but leave without degrees. Historically, College Park's black students have dropped out in greater numbers than whites.

Only 35 percent of the black students who enrolled in 1986 had graduated from College Park five years later, the last group for which the campus has compiled statistics. By comparison, almost 60 percent of whites who started college that year graduated by 1991.

The 35 percent graduation rate represents progress. Only 24 percent of blacks in the freshman class of 1982 graduated within five years.

Despite the improvement, College Park officials say they must do better.

"Our numbers are not what we want them to be," Dr. Kirwan said. "We're trying to make a major change in that area and improve our record."

College Park has offered more counseling and tutoring they say will help keep students, particularly blacks, enrolled.

Part of that effort was a special five-day orientation recently for 20 black men enrolling at College Park this September.

The orientation mixed nuts-and-bolts tips for campus survival with admonitions to help students prepare for hostile or racist encounters.

"Not everyone is going to like you at this university," Jerry Lewis, the director of academic achievement programs, told the students. "As a matter of fact, some people will wish you weren't here.

"But that's OK," said Dr. Lewis, who is black. "That will happen in any multiracial environment."

Students praised the orientation, which featured discussions with several black administrators and professors.

"It gives you the feeling that if they can get through this, so can you," said Art Cleaver, 18, of Largo.

With money tight on campus, officials were able to offer the valuable orientation to only 20 blacks, who were chosen randomly from a total of at least 700 incoming black freshmen.

They chose only males because they historically have lagged behind women in graduation rates. If the 2-year-old program is judged a success, the coaching may be expanded when more money is available, said Mary E. Cothran, the orientation director.

College officials may be focusing even more closely on keeping blacks in college in the wake of recent court rulings.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Mississippi's system of higher education was still segregated, 30 years after that state began integrating its campuses.

That decision may have some bearing on how Maryland divides its funding among the state's campuses in the future.

College Park's graduation and retention rates for blacks may be factors in a federal court case involving a challenge by a non-black student to the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program for gifted blacks.

A federal appeals court ruled in April that College Park must discontinue the blacks-only scholarships unless it can show that discrimination still exists on campus.

Ironically, the results of the magazine's graduation survey have already been used against the university. Lawyers for Daniel J. Podberesky, the student challenging the legality of the Banneker scholarships, told a judge recently that with such good graduation numbers, College Park has no need to continue offering blacks-only scholarships.

Campus officials disagree, saying the campus needs the scholarships to continue attracting top black students who are likely to graduate.

College Park's graduation number is partly explained by simple demographics. The school is one of the largest universities in the country, and Maryland has the nation's 7th highest percentage of blacks -- 24.9 percent, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

Moreover, blacks in the state are some of the most affluent in the country, and as such are more likely to send their children to college.

Maryland's black households had the nation's highest median income in states with a population of at least 10 percent blacks.

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