by Maya Rhodan
NNPA Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When Mecala Holmes was a freshman at Howard University in 2008, she recalls seeing a t-shirt in the school’s book store that read “Howard University, the best four or five years of your life.”
Holmes recalled, “I saw that and thought ‘I’m not going to be here for five years. And then I finished my freshman year and I thought ‘I’m about to finish in five years.”
Holmes, a computer engineering major, decided to take 12 credits every semester to better balance her challenging curriculum with the social opportunities Howard had to offer—from events, to social and service organizations such as Jewels, Inc. a mentoring program she was an active member of throughout college.
Twelve credits per semester, however, wouldn’t help her accrue the 126 she needed to graduate within four years.
Although Holmes had realized she wouldn’t be graduating with the class, watching her friends and peers prepare for their long-awaited commencement without her was emotional for her.
“Last year, I cried on graduation day,” Holmes said. “But if I had graduated last year I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have now. Looking back, I wouldn’t have done it differently.”
Holmes graduated from Howard’s College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Science this month, a year after the expected graduation date set when she entered the school in 2008.
In September, Holmes will begin her career in an entry-level role at IBM in Virginia, a job she says she probably wouldn’t have gotten had she finished school in 2012.
She says although graduating in four years is a realistic goal for most students, it isn’t everyone’s reality.
“It’s realistic, but you have to have a certain mindset,” Holmes said. “Your priority has to be school.”
For many Black students at HBCUs, however, regardless of their mindset, graduating in four years just isn’t their reality.
According to a report on HBCUs by a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, titled “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” HBCUs have a 30 percent graduation rate, with about 32 percent of students at private 4-year institutions graduating within six years, along with 29 percent at public schools.
Howard has one of the highest graduation rates among HBCUs, with 39 percent of the class of 2011 graduating within four years. The schools 6-year graduation rate is 62 percent, five points higher than the national average.
Howard University Provost Wayne Frederick says getting students to graduate in four years is very important.
“From the University’s point of view, it’s important for us because we exist for the purpose of arming the nation’s youth with the tools they need to change society,” Frederick said. “To get them well educated and well-trained in the most efficient manner possible.”
Although Frederick says the curriculum the university has designed ensures students have the ability to matriculate in the “best possible fashion,” he also understands there are other considerations.
“The biggest obstacle for students is finances,” Frederick said. “College education is expensive, we really have to look at what the price of school is and how students are funding [their education].”
At colleges across the country, specifically HBCUs where 33 percent of students depend on Parent PLUS loans for school, changes to federal grant and loan requirements can have a large impact on their degree attainment.
At Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, almost 1,000 students left the school last fall, many as a result of failing to meet altered requirements for the Parent PLUS loan.
Though many of these cases have been appealed, including nearly 600 students who lost and later regained financial aid at Howard, the cost of college remains a hindrance to graduation of the disproportionately low-income students who attend Black colleges.
According to “The Changing Face of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” the majority of students who attend HBCUs are “low-income, first-generation, and Pell-Grant eligible.” The report adds, “students with these characteristics are less likely to graduate no matter where they attend college,” noting that even predominately white institutions with student bodies with similar characteristics have comparable graduation rates.
However, as the country quickly becomes more diverse, HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions could play a vital role in President Obama’s goal of achieving high levels of college completion by 2020.
HBCUs currently enroll about 16 percent of Black college students, according to a report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
For people like Dominique Raymond, the vice president of alliance state relations at Complete College America, a non-profit based in Indiana focused on closing the degree-attainment gap among Americans, however, enrolling students is not enough.
“We’ve done a great job with the access agenda,” says Raymond. “When you look at those attending college, it looks a lot like America—there’s a diverse population. But when those who complete college end up being traditional students, meaning those who are full time, and completion among minority groups isn’t persisting.”
According to Raymond, time is the major “enemy to completion” for students is time—the longer it takes for students to complete school, the less likely they are to graduate at all.
Obtaining a college degree has become increasingly important to the wealth and employability of the population. According to the Department of Education, people with a college degree made twice the annual income of those with a high school diploma or equivalent.
The wealth gap between those with and without degrees is only projected to increase over time.
“You earn more, when you learn more,” said Raymond. “Economic success of individuals comes from education.”
While college graduation is important, the amount of time it takes to complete school is not a point of concern for many students.
Travan Hurst, a 2013 graduate of Howard University, who like Holmes got to the school in 2008, says once you take into account the environmental stresses of college, graduating in five years is a more stress-free option, specifically for students in STEM and science programs.
“For students in science and engineering it’s less stressful to stay for five years,” said Hurst, a graduate of the College of Allied Health at Howard University. “It’s more conducive to your progress as a student to take your time.”