Fisk University may be short on cash, but its rising graduation rates prove that success isn't always dependent on deep pockets. The school's graduation rate was 63 percent in 2004, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, and it was still 63 percent in 2006. Among historically black colleges and universities, that puts Fisk in good company.
The center's report lauded Fisk and Tennessee State University for succeeding with large enrollments of low-income students, a classification based on Pell Grant awards, which is even more of an anomaly, national educators say.
"What we know about graduation rates is that the financial situation of the students has a huge impact," said Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.
As recently as 1993, Fisk's graduation rate was a dismal 25 percent. Tennessee State University, with a 2004 graduation rate of 44 percent, also landed on the NCES "success" list. TSU's graduation rate rose to 47 percent in 2006.
The new study found that all institutions defined as low-income-serving had a median graduation rate of 39 percent. About half of Fisk's undergraduate enrollment is classified as low-income students. At state schools like TSU, where the percentage of low-income students is closer to 60 percent, officials believe the graduation rates are actually higher than reported.
"Many low-income students often are working jobs and may take more than six years to earn a degree," said Ken Looney, TSU's associate vice president for academic affairs. "In those cases, the student does not fit into that six-year window and doesn't figure into the graduation rate."