From Access to Completion: A Seamless Path to College Completion for African Americans

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The National Urban League report, "From Access to Completion:  A Seamless Path to College Graduation for African Americans, finds that a majority (65 percent) of African American college students are categorized as "non-traditional" or "independent" meaning they tend to be older and employees first, balancing work and family responsibilities while going to school.  The report finds that the work and family dynamics that characterize these students have a direct impact on the kind of school they choose to attend, their matriculation, their completion rates and the amount of financial aid they receive.

"From Access to Completion" concludes that these students require a comprehensive, customized approach that includes strengthening the Pell Grant program to better align with rising tuition costs and student need; incorporating a suite of services that address the challenges and barriers to completion these students face; and implementing an integrated, systems-focused approach to higher education that serves the full pipeline of students' college career access, retention and completion.

In 2013, the National Urban League released its first report on federal student aid, conducted through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reimagining Aid Delivery and Design (RADD) project. In that paper, through an online survey and focus groups across the nation, the Urban League developed a set of principles to help ensure that African Americans and other underrepresented students access equitable postsecondary opportunities that fuel their economic mobility.  The 2013 State of Black America 50-year retrospective Equality Index found that the number of African Americans enrolled in college has more than tripled -- for each college graduate in 1963, there are now five. We must continue to build on that success. 

College has now become a necessary path toward prosperity and the middle class. In this follow-up paper the Urban League explores and defines the characteristics of the typical African American student and makes specific recommendations to improve their postsecondary access, retention and completion. These solutions center on the Pell Grant which provided financial aid to over nine million students in 2011-2012, including 62 percent of all African American college students.

Key Findings

Most African American college students must balance college with full-time work and families.

·         The majority of African American undergraduates (65 percent) are independent. While an independent or non-traditional student can be defined by a number of characteristics, African American independent students tend to be employees first, balancing work and family responsibilities while going to school. These work and family dynamics impact the type of postsecondary institution they attend, the amount of credits they take each semester, and ultimately their college persistence and completion rates. Additionally:

·         Independent African American undergraduates are more likely than others to be single parents 48 percent compared to 23 percent of whites, 34 percent of Latinos, 36 percent of Native Americans and 19 percent of Asians.  

  • Only 23 percent of independent African American students enroll in in 4-year institutions compared to 49 percent of dependent African American students or 40 percent of all undergraduates.
  • Most independent African American students are enrolled in 2-year institutions (42 percent) and another 27 percent are enrolled in private, for-profit institutions – a much larger percentage than for any other group. 

·         Consistent with their choice of institution, roughly one-third of independent African American students are in bachelor’s degree programs, compared to 53 percent of dependent African American students and 46 percent of all undergraduates.

Despite having incomes that would qualify them for greater financial aid, we conclude that African American students are likely receiving less financial aid because they are enrolled less-than-full-time—a probable consequence of the delicate balance of college, work and family with which these students contend. 

  • Less than 25 percent of independent students are enrolled in college full-time, full-year[1] – a pattern that’s consistent across all racial and ethnic groups.

African Americans are more likely than other students to be low-income and are more likely to have a zero Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) when they apply for federal financial aid.   In general, this should translate to larger Pell Grant awards for these students. However, since most African American students have work and family obligations, they tend to enroll less-than-full-time and consequently receive reductions in their maximum Pell Grant award.

·         In fact, while 62 percent of African American students receive some Pell support, only 14 percent of independent African Americans receive the maximum Pell Grant award.

The report concludes that enrollment intensity may affect African American students’ access other federal and state financial aid.

·         Ten percent of independent African American Pell recipients also received an institutional grant and 17 percent received a state grant, compared to 25 percent of dependent African American Pell recipients that received a institutional grant and 33 percent that received a state grant.

Financial aid alone is not sufficient to retain and graduate low-income and underserved students. The National Urban League recommends that financial aid be coupled with personalized supports for students—an approach that has already shown promising results in state higher education systems and individual institutions.

·         When looking at graduation rates of Pell recipients within six years of a student’s initial enrollment, over a third of all Grant recipients, 43 percent African American recipients and 52 percent of independent African American Pell recipients leave college before completing a degree. 


As this report is published, many Americans are reflecting on the on the advances made in the 60 years since the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which made equal access to educational opportunity the law of the land. Today, the National Urban League seeks to advance the conversation beyond the goal of access and equality, to providing the necessary supports and resources to mitigate the challenges highlighted here and realize the larger goals of college completion, upward mobility and economic empowerment.

Institutions that create a culture of completion for all students and couple this culture with a suite of personalized services that address barriers such students face, has resulted in dramatic increases in the retention and graduation rates of their African American students. We believe this personalized approach to the college learning experience will help support the access, retention and completion of all students.

Moreover, the Pell Grant, which for over 40 years has opened the doors of postsecondary education for millions of Americans, must be strengthened to fill the gap between rising tuition costs and decreasing state investment. While the federal investment in the Pell Grant has grown, it has not kept up with tuition costs. So while the Pell Grant once financed nearly 75 percent of the cost of a public four-year college education and it now covers just 31 percent of a student’s cost of attendance. The purchasing power of the Pell Grant must be strengthened so that it continues to serve as a key resource to help needy students to access higher education. The recommendations include increasing the lifetime Pell Grant eligibility and restoring the ability to access the Pell Grant throughout the year.

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