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Most people who grow up like Makandall Saint-Eloi never graduate from college. Raised along with his brother by a single mom who worked as a nurse’s assistant to make ends meet, Saint-Eloi grew up poor and went to a Hollywood, Florida, high school where only a third of ninth-graders pass the state reading test.
Such surroundings create long odds, particularly for low-income black male high school students like Saint-Eloi: Only 4 percent earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s. That’s partly because many of them never go to college—only 60 percent of Saint-Eloi’s classmates graduated on time, and of those, less than half went on to a four-year institution. But it’s also because less than half of all black students who start college at a four-year institution graduate in six years or less, more than 20 percentage points less than the graduation rate for white students.
In high school Saint-Eloi was helped onto a different path by a program that provided him and other low-income students with counselors to help him assemble college applications, navigate bewildering financial aid forms, and prepare for college-admissions tests. And the college he chose to attend, Florida State University, has an unusually comprehensive program to help low-income, first-generation college students like him succeed—the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE).
FSU established CARE in 2000. Six years later, the university posted its highest-ever six-year graduation rate for black students—72 percent. It was higher than the rate for white students at Florida State and for black students at the state’s more selective flagship university, the University of Florida. Saint-Eloi is on track for the same success, having completed a full course load in his first semester with three A’s and a B.
By reaching out to low-income and first-generation students as early as the sixth grade and providing a steady stream of advice and support through their high school and college careers, FSU has managed to defy the prevailing wisdom that low minority college graduation rates are regrettable but unavoidable. FSU is not alone. In the last six years, a significant number of colleges and universities have achieved small or nonexistent graduation rate gaps between white and black students.
But for every Florida State, there are many other, similar universities where students of color are far less likely to succeed. Those institutions are not failing because they don’t realize they have a problem, or because FSU has discovered a secret formula that others have yet to learn. They fail because at many institutions the success of undergraduates, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is not the priority it should be.