State lawmakers have made an issue of the fact that in 2013, only 13.7 percent of South Carolina State University’s students graduated in four years.
But Interim President Dr. W. Franklin Evans says taking longer than four years to graduate does not mean students are not well prepared for their careers or that they did poorly academically.
“You’d be surprised at the number that are graduating with honors after five or six years,” he said.
“A lot of outside agencies put that on us as accountability, and the legislators are looking at it that way, but the value of finishing in four years is not spending the money for another year,” he said.
Numbers released by the university last week show a four-year graduation rate of 15 percent, a five-year rate of 30.8 percent and a six-year rate of 38.2 percent in 2014.
S.C. State is not the only institution that has many students who take longer than four years to complete their courses of study.
A study by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education shows that the university’s six-year graduation rate is about midway between Atlanta’s Spelman College for women, which tops the list with a 79 percent, and the University of the District of Columbia and Texas Southern University, which have rates of 11 percent.
According to the JBHE, the six-year graduation rate for African Americans at the historically black colleges and universities in their study was 33 percent or less.
Multiple factors can cause students to take more than four years to complete their studies, Evans said.
Twelve hours is considered fulltime, but to graduate in four years, students may have to take as many as 16 hours. Like many HBCUs, S.C. State often accepts students who are weak in various academic areas and have to work hard to “catch up.” Those students may not be able to take that heavy a load, Evans said.
Also, students who have to work to make a living may not be able to carry enough hours to graduate in four years, he said. And some students have to “stop out” and work for a semester or two to earn the money to return to classes.
“If they don’t have the finances ... they have to come up with the money some way, somehow,” he said.
Additionally, some students decide to change their areas of concentration midstream. They often have to take extra courses for the new major, which will add to their time in school.
Other students decide to take a double major or minor to give them an extra skill set, Evans said. For example, a student with a social work major might want to open an office of his own and will want to get another concentration in business, he said.
S.C. State also has several courses of study that are normally considered five-year degree programs, Evans said.
The university’s rate is higher than some, lower than others, in South Carolina.
The four-year graduation rate in 2013 at the University of South Carolina-Columbia was 54.2 percent and at Clemson, 59.1 percent. That same year, 72.7 percent of USC students and 82.5 percent of Clemson students had finished their degrees within six years.
At USC branches, the four-year rates were 20.7 percent at Aiken, 9.8 percent at Beaufort and 23.7 percent at Upstate. The six-year rates were 42.1 percent, Aiken; 26.9 percent, Beaufort and 40.5 percent, Upstate.
Claflin University, S.C. State’s next-door neighbor, had a four-year graduation rate of 28.8 percent and a six-year rate of 43.7 percent in 2013.
The JBHE study showed declines in graduation rates at 22 of 26 HBCUs after 2008.
The report noted that the drop occurred during an economic decline that brought major cutbacks in state appropriations and financial aid, which “undoubtedly contributed significantly to the downward trend in black student graduation rates at these schools.”
Evans said earlier that changes in federal aid requirements made it difficult for parents to get Pell Plus loans, which had a major effect on students being able to remain in school.
In “Being Fair About Graduation Rates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” which appeared in the Huffington Post in September 2011, Marybeth Gasman said HBCUs aren’t treated fairly in discussions of graduation rates.
They’re constantly being compared to Ivy League schools when it comes to graduation rates, but the majority of HBCU students are low-income, first-generation college students and most are eligible for Pell grants.
Most HBCUs admit students with low SAT scores who are less prepared for college because they had fewer opportunities to attend high-quality high schools, Gasman said. Additionally, HBCU’s tend to be underfunded and are unable to afford the programs and services they need to retain students.
According to Sara Lipka’s “Students Who Don't Count” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the data compiled for the graduation rates is not fairly representative of modern college students. It’s designed to track traditional first-time students who enter college in the fall and get degrees from the institution where they started.
Lipka reported that some 2.4 million of the 5 million students entering college in 2009 did not fit that definition. About 40 percent of them were part-time students.
Dr. Judith A. Ramaley of Portland State University said a “heavy focus on degree completion leaves out the realities of life in today's academy.”
In her article “Do College-Complete Rates Really Measure Quality” in the Journal of Higher Education, she suggests the best strategy for improving completion rates is to “serve the underserved” by “adopting new and promising practices that foster academic and career success for all their students, regardless of how prepared they are when they enter college.”