More blacks succeed at FSU

A program for first-in-their-family college students helps them stay - and finish - at above-average rates.

Published November 19, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -Growing up on the impoverished streets of Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, Pedro Gassant never considered himself a contender for college. His mother worked for a dry-cleaning business; his father cleaned houses. They didn't go to college, and neither did Gassant's five older brothers.

"I thought I would graduate from high school and go to work at a warehouse or something," he says.

Today, Gassant, 19, is a third-year English literature major, already planning for a law degree he'll pursue after he earns his bachelor's from Florida State University.

"I want to be an attorney," he declares confidently. "That's the endgame."

As president of the Black Student Union, Gassant is one of the most high-profile examples of FSU's success in retaining and graduating black students.

A black student attending FSU has a better chance of leaving with a degree after six years than black students attending any of the state's other 10 public institutions - including Florida A&M, the historically black university one mile to the south.

While universities across the country struggle, graduating just 41 percent of black students within six years, FSU is bucking the trend - and garnering national attention from institutions that want to do the same.

Nearly 71 percent of black students graduate from FSU within six years, a rate that exceeds the state average by 17 percentage points and the national average by 30 percentage points.

FSU administrators say the school's success reflects an admissions gamble that emphasizes students' potential and character more than SAT scores, an academic support network that extends well beyond freshman year, and the social benefits of having FAMU next door.

Other colleges are taking note.

FSU provost Larry Abele spoke this year to college leaders in North Carolina who are looking to mimic the institution's success. Other FSU administrators get calls from schools like the University of Michigan and the University of South Florida. FAMU just opened a retention center for students in its pharmacy college, the nation's top producer of black pharmacists.

"This is a real source of pride to us," Abele said. "If they graduate, their lives are better and their children's lives are better."

Care and attention

On a crisp Tuesday afternoon, more than two dozen students are crowded inside a warm third-floor room of FSU's student union, hovering over books, laptops and computer stations.

They're studying for calculus and psychology tests, finishing reading assignments, sending their professors e-mail. Tutors hover to help anyone who asks.

Most of these students arrived at FSU through the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement CARE, the program FSU administrators say is key to their black students' academic success.

CARE throws typical admissions standards out the window to bring in promising students - most of them low-income - who are the first in their families to attend college.

CARE officials care more about the study habits and self-motivation students display in high school than how well they fared on the SAT. The average SAT score of an FSU freshman entering through CARE is 940. The average for FSU freshmen not enrolled in CARE is 1,204.

"And there are a lot of kids with 800s and 820s," says Abele. "I don't think a single test ought to limit someone's opportunities."

The program isn't race-based, but because of the income and first-generation criteria, black students make up about two-thirds of the 1,200 participants. Seventeen percent are Hispanic.

CARE students start in the summer, taking a six-week semester of courses and easing into college life when FSU's rolling campus is less crowded.

Program administrators, counselors and mentors help students develop good study habits. They show them around town and help them secure as much financial aid as possible, so students can focus on their classes without financial stress.

Through the year, FSU staffers organize dances, cookouts, award ceremonies and bi-monthly discussions on topics like stress management.

"They really keep us organized and help get us situated," says Ami Oladipo, 19, of Orlando. "It's like a family."

Many state universities have so-called summer bridge programs for first-generation and minority students. But what sets CARE apart is its continuity and intensity.

Other Florida programs tend to drop off after the first summer or fall semester. But FSU assists students through graduation, and many students stay in touch through medical and law schools.

CARE students must study in the student union lab at least eight hours a week - more if their grades start to fall. Students who fall short can't register for future classes until they make up the hours. History professor Fabian Tata, coordinator of the CARE lab, meticulously tracks every hour students spend in the lab. Last month alone, students spent 6,600 hours under his watch.

"We are hard on them," says Tata, 40, a native of Cameroon. "We make sure they realize what an opportunity this is."

The result: The freshman retention rate for CARE students is better than for other FSU freshmen, 92 percent vs. 88 percent.

In its early years, FSU was an all-white institution. Down the street was FAMU, the only state university open to black students.

Today, FAMU remains a mostly black college, and FSU has been integrated for decades. But FSU officials and students say FAMU's history and presence improve the social experience for many black FSU students.

FAMU helps

FSU freshman Shawn Creal, 18, of Brandon, is part of a modeling troupe with students from both FAMU and FSU. She also participates in Jump Start, which sends FSU and FAMU students into day care centers as volunteer teachers.

"Here you have more social activities than just school, and I think FAMU plays a big part of it," said Creal, a Bloomingdale High graduate.

While traditionally white institutions like the University of Florida sometimes struggle to maintain a welcoming social environment for minority students, FSU's proximity to FAMU provides a level of diversity lacking in a place like Gainesville.

Twenty-three percent of Gainesville residents are black, compared with 37 percent in Tallahassee.

Alanna Harmon, a 1995 FSU graduate who lives in Riverview, said part of the school's allure was the prospect of socializing with FAMU students.

She eventually made most of her friends at FSU, "but as a freshman, I did start out by going to the FAMU parties and stuff."

Harold Gadsdon, 18, comes from a small town near Wildwood. The only black man in his class to graduate with honors, he is now studying mass media and communications at FSU.

Several of his high school friends chose FAMU.

"So I'm over there like every day," he says. "It's cool."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

College graduation rates

Florida State does a better job graduating its black students after six years than its overall student population, and its graduation rate for black students is higher than at any other state university - including historically black Florida A&M.

School Black grad rate Overall grad rate Florida State 70.9 percent 67.5 percent Florida A&M 42.2 41.9 University of Florida 70.6 78.7 Central Florida 52.2 57.1 Florida International 42.5 47.7 South Florida 50.4 48 Florida Atlantic 37.5 36.5 Florida Gulf Coast 37.5 34.0 North Florida 42.4 44.3 West Florida 41.4 40.7 Source: Florida Board of Governors