A recent story in Newsweek began by recognizing Bowdoin's effort to attract minority students, only to drop the following line: "While nine out of 10 white students routinely get their diplomas within six years, only seven out of 10 black students made it to graduation day in several recent classes."
However, the most "recent" class to have that low a rate was the Class of 2005, in which 72 percent of black students graduated. Several College officials pointed out that due to the small number of black students in that class—32 matriculated in 2001—little stock could be placed in the significance of that percentage.
In the Class of 2007, the last class for which figures are available, 88 percent of black students graduated in six years compared to 95 percent of white students. Because colleges' graduation rates are frequently computed using a six-year metric, there is a lag between when many graduates receive their diplomas and when the final data are calculated.
According to Vice President of Institutional Planning and Assessment Becky Brodigan, Newsweek mistakenly cited data from a year that had numerous inaccuracies in it.
"Newsweek went to the Education Trust Web site, and the Education Trust pulls all their data from the federally required data," she said. "There are all kinds of problems in that year with all the federal data, and the government had to go back and correct it...But the Education Trust already had drawn their data for that year, so they didn't go back and refresh their data. In other words, they aren't running live data."
Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood wrote that he had "contacted Newsweek about the error" in an e-mail to the Orient. But as of yesterday, the article, published February 19, remained unchanged.
While acknowledging the graduation gap remains between black and white students, Associate Dean of Multicultural Student Programs Wil Smith said that the disparity had considerably shrunk as the College focused on recruiting and retaining minority students. He also said that the Newsweek story missed a larger trend at Bowdoin: increasing graduation rates for black students.
"Since 2003, the percentage gaps were as large as 20 percent, but as recently as the class of 2007, the gap is seven percent," he said. "So [the article] doesn't speak to what Bowdoin has done to close an obvious gap. Now any gap is too much of a gap. But since 2003, we have been closing that gap, and [doing it] in four years is a significant, positive change."
Smith said that several programs aimed to help students adjust to the College were responsible for the improvements.
"We were able to offer things like our quantitative reasoning program...and the Writing Project for extra help in closing that gap," he said. "Having key staff and faculty members working—often directly—with those students...and having programs, like the first-year retreat for multicultural and first-generation colleges students [also helped]."
Alex Haskins '11, a Questbridge College Match scholarship recipient, said that students of color are supported at Bowdoin, but that more personal responsibility is needed from the students themselves to build lasting success.
"I think the College administration does the best that it can in providing an atmosphere which embraces everyone," he said. "I think a large part of the initiative depends on the students and the relationships they have with each other. I think there is more to be desired from the students. The administration is great: if I have a problem, they are able to help me."
Some peer schools, like Williams and Amherst, have been historically more successful at graduating black students. Smith said this was partly because these schools had an easier time recruiting minorities thanks to their geographic locations, placement in the U.S. News and World Report rankings, and relative prestige.
"We have been doing pretty good compared to the Middleburys and Swartmores," said Smith.
"But we lose a lot of students to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and even Amherst and Williams. These are schools that usually have higher [minority student] graduation rates. Now that is because they have better prepared students than we do. It doesn't necessarily mean they have brighter students. Their students are more likely to come from schools with better resources. Now the students we have, make no bones about it, are still the crème of the crème from whence they come," Smith added.
But widely varying high school curricula make it difficult for some when they arrive at Bowdoin.
"Many of our students have mastered the curriculum at their high schools," Smith said. "But where their high school curriculum ends, and Bowdoin's begins, there is a gap there. For some of our black students, it is a very big gap for them to close."
Joelinda Coichy '11, a Chamberlain Scholar, said, "There is such a wealth of resources here—and it doesn't matter what color skin you have—but if you don't know how to take advantage of them, you can easily be in trouble."
In addition to the academic challenges of Bowdoin, minority students can find it difficult at times to adjust to the overwhelmingly white population of Maine.
"Any student that comes to Bowdoin, particularly students of color, need to recognize that they are in Maine, and that there are not many students of color," Coichy added. "I think it is both the responsibility of the school and of those who feel marginalized by the environment here, to reach out."
Smith added that a sense of perspective was needed when talking about black graduation rates. Referring to the Class of 2005, the one with the 72 percent graduation rate, he said, "In many communities, and I'll be honest: 25 out of 32 isn't bad. And I say that coming from a community where that would be real good. I know by Bowdoin standards, and my standards, that that is not enough, that it is substandard. But in the big context, where some of the black communities are, that is damn good, to be quite honest."