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State college graduation rates show increase, report says

Graduation rates for state college students are on an upswing, but more than half of those enrolled still do not earn degrees within six years of starting school, according to a state Board of Higher Education report released yesterday.

The overall graduation rate has edged up to 49 percent for first-time students who entered Massachusetts state colleges in 1999 and graduated by 2005, compared with the 1997 freshmen class rate of 46.8 percent, according to the report, which used the most recent federal data available.

"Overall, good news is in progress, but we still have work to do," said John C. Brockelman, a trustee of the Board of Higher Education who chaired the committee that examined graduation rates. "Although we have made progress on graduation rates of minority students, we need to continue to hammer away on the graduation rate gap between white students and minorities."

State higher education leaders largely attribute the improvements to more rigorous admission standards. In 1997, as part of a national wave to bolster accountability in public higher education systems, the colleges started requiring students to submit SAT scores, increased the minimum grade point average for admission for freshmen from 2.6 in 1997 to 2.7 in 1999, and reduced the number of students it would accept who did not meet admission standards.

Some critics feared that stiffer standards would make it more difficult for black and Hispanic students to gain admittance, but the percent of minority students increased slightly for those years to 9.8 percent in 1999, up from 9.4 percent in 1997.

Blacks made the strongest and most consistent gains, jumping to 43.9 percent for the 1999 freshmen class, compared with 36.9 percent for 1997 freshmen. That allowed the gap to narrow between blacks and whites to 6.8 percent for the 1999 freshmen class, from 11.2 percent for the 1997 freshmen class.

But the gap between whites and Hispanics grew slightly, as did that between whites and Asians. Among Asians, 34.5 percent in the 1997 freshmen class graduated, compared with 36.6 percent for the 1999 freshmen class.

Samuel Hurtado -- coordinator for the Boston-based advocacy group for Latino students, Latino Education Action Network, or LEAN -- said that in spite of improvements in graduation rates, it is alarming that among the 1999 freshman class, there is a 14 percentage point gap between Hispanics' rate of 36.3 percent and whites' rate of 50.7 percent.

"We need to do more work preparing students, so students can make it through four years in college," Hurtado said.

On many campuses, increased admission standards have been accompanied with additional academic support for students struggling with classes. Some campuses began to offer summer boot camps for incoming freshmen to shore up their skills. They also placed tutors in classes to offer an additional set of hands to help professors reach all students.

"What we are seeing across the board, as we are paying more attention to student success, is the range of specialized advising and warning systems, such as someone missing classes, is growing," said Mary Grant, president of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and chairwoman of the Council of State College Presidents, who worked on the graduation rate report.

The report was a follow-up to the board's first-ever detailed look at college performance, which three years ago showed state college graduation rates trailing national averages. At that time, the rate showed a fluctuation of 41 to 45 percent, compared with a national average of 54 percent. The college presidents complained that the wrong national average was used as a comparison, because the rate included data about premier research universities, which have higher graduation rates than state colleges.

The report used a rate that excluded the research universities. The change caused the colleges to perform 4 percent higher than the national rate of 45 percent. The state colleges are striving to increase graduation rates above 50 percent and would like to be ranked among the top 10 state college systems in the country.