African American male retention and graduation rates at U.S. colleges and universities have come under increasing scrutiny. According to Shaun Harper, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and principal investigator of the National Black Male College Achievement Study, 67.6 percent of
black male freshmen never complete their degrees. In fact, black men comprised only 4. 3 percent of all students enrolled at
U.S. institutions of higher education in 2003, the exact same percentage as in 1976. According to data from the Consortium
for Student Retention Data Exchange, the national overall graduation rate for African Americans after six years in school is
38 percent, compared with 56 percent for white students. Harper asserts that a severe lack of engagement among black male
students is contributing to the attrition problem.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Reaching Inside Your Soul
for Excellence (RISE) program was conceived as an intervention program to address a critically important issue in higher
education: African American male retention and graduation
rates. The university’s Division of Student Affairs developed
the RISE program to rectify the unique set of problems associated with the lower retention rates and poor academic success
of these students.
Across the board, many students experience academic difficulties as they transition from high school to college. At the
University of Pittsburgh, high academic achievers with grades
that have placed them in the top fifth or tenth percentiles of
their high school classes often enter the university unprepared
for its academic rigors. The demands of a major university or
college can cause academic difficulties for many students, and
their grade point averages may plummet, with consequences
ranging from academic probation to dismissal.
By specifically addressing students’ academic problem
areas through tutoring and mentoring, the RISE program
counters some of the perceived cultural inequities of disadvantaged groups early in their college careers. By boosting their
academic performance through tutoring in math, science,
and writing, and by providing stipends to pay for books, the
program helps place these students on the same level with
their peers. RISE also helps students identify their academic
strengths and make better academic and personal decisions.
The program raises awareness about academic and career
interests and helps many students avoid the frustrations that
can lead to high dropout rates.
Reaching Inside Your Soul for Excellence
The RISE program is aligned with the missions and visions of the University of Pittsburgh and the Division of Student Affairs, and supports an institutional goal of increasing retention numbers at Pittsburgh. To
achieve this goal, the RISE program facilitates the development of a strong sense of self-identity, builds confidence in
academic ability, fosters a sense of belonging, and increases
participants’ overall satisfaction with the institution. The
university is seeking to produce educated, engaged, and
socially responsible African American students who will make
meaningful contributions to the university, their families, their
communities, and the global society.
Students in the RISE program are expected to participate in
a number of activities, including:
• Working with a community of mentors
• Attending Sunday evening mentoring/meal sessions
• Providing access to grades during the semester
• Becoming a viable member of a student organization
• Attending weekly study groups, success-driven events,
and a reflection retreat.
The RISE program was piloted during the 2007–2008 academic year with 36 students. Of the original participants, 20
remain active in the program and 16 were noncompliant. The
20 students who remain in the program have an average GPA
of 2.62 compared to 1. 13 for the noncompliant students.
The academic progress of the current 80 RISE program participants is the greatest testament to the program’s potential. The RISE program shows promise as an
extremely effective means to move under-represented students
from poor academic standing to good academic standing. The
chart below demonstrates the upward trend in GPAs among
Overall Mean GPAs
Mean Cumulative GPA = 2.88