The 546 students receiving bachelor’s degrees from N.C. Central University this past Saturday morning are, in a sense, survivors.
At NCCU, a historically black public university, fewer than half of undergraduate students complete their course work in six years, according to campus and UNC system data.
“Some students have come to the university because their parents said to go, and they don’t really want to be here,” said Bernice Johnson, dean of NCCU’s University College. “Others are too busy. They work. It’s hard to work 40 hours a week and have a 3.0 [grade point average].”
Universities routinely track graduation rates using six-year data. In NCCU’s case, 49 percent of the 821 students who enrolled as first-time freshmen in 2002 graduated by 2008. Newer data is not yet available.
But officials say change is under way. The university has talked for years about retaining students and getting them to graduation day. But the issue received a new focus with the arrival nearly two years ago of Chancellor Charlie Nelms, who has a motto: “Graduation is your destination.”
A summer bridge program was created to teach freshmen study skills and jumpstart their writing and reading comprehension. The UNC system created minimum admissions standards for the first time.
And a restructured University College now emphasizes the first two years of the undergraduate experience, targeting, among other things, a 3.0 grade point average for all students at the end of their freshman year.
“Improvements are in the works,” said Johnson. “There is absolutely no reason that any student who comes to N.C. Central University should earn any grade less than a B, due to all the services we have.”
The university’s first target is to increase its six-year graduation rate to 55 percent by 2012. But Johnson and others say a different statistic really tells the story.
Most of the students who drop out do so between the freshman and sophomore year. Two years ago, 77 percent of NCCU students returned for their sophomore year, but that number dipped to less than 70 percent last year, Johnson said. This year, at least 74 percent have indicated plans to return to campus for their sophomore year, she said.
The UNC system average hovers around 81 percent; the national average is about 80 percent.
NCCU does slightly better than the other historically black schools in the UNC system. The average six-year graduation rate for all five public HBCUs is about 43 percent, according to the most recent system data.
Officials at NCCU say students and the university share responsibility for student success.
Kent Williams Jr., NCCU’s student body president, said he likes new minimum admissions standards — a 720 SAT score and a 2.3 grade point average. But he concedes that the higher expectations of students once they get in contribute to the dreary retention and graduation statistics.
“Right now, it seems like Central students don’t have it together,” said Williams, a senior from Raleigh. “But in the long run, you’ll see changes being made were necessary. Central doesn’t want to be looked at as that little school down the road from Duke.”
In particular, Williams is encouraged by the university’s new focus on advising. He has two friends whose advisers tracked them down in classrooms because they hadn’t responded to calls and e-mails.
“There’s a big emphasis on advising our students and helping our students graduate,” he said. “It wasn’t like that before. I believe we’re doing 10 times better [at advising] than when I got here.”