Despite improved rates of graduation over the past 10 years, the University is not even among the top 20 schools nationally in terms of its retention of black students.
Progress has come fast though. Penn is the second most improved university in retention of black students over the last decade, according to a study by The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
But Penn still has the second-worst graduation rate of black students among Ivy League schools, ahead of only Cornell.
From 2001 to 2004, an average of 91 percent of students enrolled at Penn graduated within six years. Black students graduated at a rate of 83 percent during that same time period.
Over that time span, Latinos graduated at a rate of 85 percent and Asians at 92 percent, according to statistics from the Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, according to Bernard Lentz, Penn's director of institutional research.
In light of these lower rates, Herman Beavers, the chair of the Committee on Minority Student Retention and Success -- which is dedicated to improving retention and student satisfaction with Penn -- has made increasing minority graduation rates a priority for the committee.
"All students are at risk of leaving Penn. The fact is, minorities have a set of issues [such that] we need to do more for them," Beavers said, referring to a host of factors -- financial, environmental and others -- as possible reasons for the discrepancy.
Still, Penn has made significant improvement, as marked by the results of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education study.
Lentz credited the rise in retention of minorities to many factors -- including boosted advising programs, higher rankings of the University in U.S. News and World Report and improved financial aid policies.
The rise in retention of black students after 1998 coincided with one policy instituted that year by the Office of Student Financial Services.
The new policy allowed students who had been placed on graduation-hold because of financial debt to the University to graduate first and pay the debt later. Before 1998, students had to pay the debt prior to graduating.
Carnegie Mellon University experienced the most improvement in average retention rates of black students from 1995 through 2004. It experienced an increase of 16 percentage points, compared to Penn's 14 percent increase.
Bill Elliot, vice president of enrollment at Carnegie Mellon, said that there is no recipe for success in graduating minority students.
"There's no silver bullet. It's about changing the overall climate of the campus. ... It's about attitudes," Elliot said.
Carnegie Mellon's 16 percent rise in black retention from 1998 to 2004 coincided with the creation of the school's Diversity Advisory Council in 2000, which was formed to assess and reform the status of diversity at the university.
The committee was instituted by Carnegie Mellon's president, Jared Cohon -- who earned his undergraduate degree from Penn.
The Retention Committee at Penn is the second of its kind. The first committee was focused on policy and protocol with no student representation.
In the fall of 2000, the second committee was instituted to include students, faculty and administrators from all four schools. Its members are currently focused on looking not only at retention policies, but their consequences as well.
"The problem with policy [focus] is that it's hit or miss," Beavers said. "Our focus is on broader subject matter. ... You need to look at impacts on elements of a smaller population, say black students in Nursing."
"Things are improving," said Beavers. "We're mindful of things that we weren't 10 years ago, and we're dealing with those issues. However, there are still really serious issues that we don't know of."
Lentz and the Retention Committee are working to respond to known problems and trying to anticipate where future issues may arise.
"Students made a great investment in Penn. We need to invest in them," Lentz said.
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