After about a decade of relatively steady increases, the graduation rate of black students at Maryland public colleges has declined, according to statistics compiled by the University System of Maryland.
Moreover, significant gains by black students in recent years have not kept up with retention and graduation rates among all college students in the state's public university system, leading to a slight increase in the so-called achievement gap, officials said.
The data were presented yesterday at a meeting of the education policy committee of the university system's Board of Regents.
After the meeting, system Chancellor William E. Kirwan said it was premature to say whether the data indicate a worrying trend or are a statistical aberration.
Kirwan noted that enrollment of African-American freshmen at the university system's eight four-year colleges has nearly doubled since 1989, far outpacing overall student population growth.
"So even though there's some decline in retention and graduation rates in the last few years, we are certainly producing a lot more African-American graduates," he said.
The university system remains committed to cutting in half the disparities between black and white students within five years, Kirwan said, calling the achievement gap "one of the most profound issues facing our country."
Six-year graduation rates of black students have slipped at five of eight state colleges analyzed, according to a report released to the regents.
Morgan State University and St. Mary's College of Maryland are not part of the University System of Maryland, and comparable figures for those public schools were not immediately available.
The report compared graduation rates of full-time students who started college in 1989, 1999 and in 2000. The declines were measured between students who enrolled in 1999 versus 2000.
The biggest decline in African-American graduation rates was at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically black college where 41 percent of black students who entered in 2000 graduated within six years, as opposed to 48 percent in 1999.
Other schools with decreased graduation rates for black students were the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Salisbury University; Coppin State University; and Bowie State University.
Only the University of Maryland, College Park and Towson University posted graduation rate increases for African-American freshmen who enrolled in 2000. Frostburg State University held steady with a 54 percent graduation rate for black students.
Systemwide, 64 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen entering the university system in 2000 graduated within six years, according to the report. For African-American students, the systemwide number is 46 percent.
That 18 percentage point achievement gap increased by 3 points from the previous year, officials said, though graduation rates for both black students and the total student population has gone up in the past decade.
Regent Orlan Johnson, an attorney who heads a system work group on minority achievement, said that a predicted enrollment surge among Maryland's college-age minority students -- who are also more likely to come from lower-income households -- increases the urgency for more need-based financial aid and academic support services.
"We have to make sure we are not leading into a trend," Johnson said. "And if there is a trend, that we put things in place to make sure we stop it as soon as possible."