During his days growing up in north Omaha, Jeff Collins admits he wasn't exactly college material.

The North High student was bright but uninterested, favorite activities including talking back, showing off, cutting up and skipping out.

"I'd just hang out in the halls, and I spent a lot of time at lunch," the 26-year-old said with a laugh. "It was totally crazy."

What saved him, he said, was a program that pulls gifted underachievers out of Omaha high schools and immerses them in guided independent study and dual high school/college classes on the University of Nebraska at Omaha campus.

The program ultimately helped Collins land not only a high school diploma but also a UNO bachelor's degree and a job in the Omaha planning office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

With his recent success story, Collins became part of a positive new trend in Omaha's black community: a steep rise in four-year college graduates.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the number of black residents in the metro area with at least a bachelor's degree has spiked nearly 80 percent since 2000.

Today nearly one in five black adults in the metro area has at least a four-year college degree. In 2000, it was less than one in seven.

Among America's metro areas with the largest black populations, only two have recently seen bigger growth in the rate of black college grads than Omaha.

"What's nice to see is the trend, which has been consistently going up," said David Drozd, a demographer in UNO's Center for Public Affairs Research. "It's important because we know education is a pathway out of poverty and to higher-paying jobs."

The growth trend is largely mirrored on the state's college campuses, with UNO, Bellevue University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in particular seeing in particular seeing sizable increases in black graduates.

UNO, which enrolls more black undergraduates than any other four year school in the state, now awards bachelor's degrees to more than 100 black students a year, up from just over 60 during the early 2000s.

However, the picture for black student success is not completely rosy.

Black students in Nebraska are still less likely than whites to attend four-year colleges. At UNO, the black graduation rate is up only marginally since 2000, and the gap between white and black graduation rates has grown.

Conversely, UNL has seen a sharper increase in its black graduation rate and is narrowing its black-white gap. In fact, a recent national study found UNL over the past decade has reduced its graduation gap between whites and historically underrepresented minorities more than any other school in the country.

At UNO, recent concerns over lagging black graduation rates have prompted the launch of new programs aimed at early identification of struggling students and better connection of often-isolated black students to the campus and each other.

"We are taking it very seriously," said Dan Shipp, UNO's vice chancellor for student affairs. "I think we can do a lot better, and we have leadership on campus committed to doing it."

Leaders in higher education say all Nebraskans have a stake in continuing to close the state's racial education gap. With the baby boom generation aging into retirement and the state's population growing increasingly diverse, Nebraska needs kids from all races and backgrounds to succeed in school if it's going to have the workforce needed to fuel future economic growth.

"We are seeing things trend in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go," said Mike Baumgartner of Nebraska's Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education. "It has to be a top priority for the state."

When it comes to raising achievement rates, there are few places it's more critical than in north Omaha, which in recent years has been home to one of the most impoverished black communities in the nation.

The metro area's black poverty rate ranked as the 14th-worst among the nation's 100 largest metro areas in census surveys between 2006 and 2010. More starkly, Omaha ranked fifth among those metro areas in the disparity between its black and white poverty rates.

Historically low rates of college success for blacks contributed to such numbers.

In 2000, 13.5 percent of Omaha-area blacks age 25 and over had at least a bachelor's degree. That was less than half the 28.5 percent white rate in Omaha and nearly a percentage point below the U.S. black average.

But more recent data compiled and analyzed by UNO's Drozd shows considerable progress on that front.

Census surveys from 2010 to 2014 show the rate of black four-year grads shot up to 19.8 percent, and it's trending still higher. It's also now slightly above the U.S. black average.

Among the 100 metro areas with the largest black populations, Omaha's percentage of black college graduates now ranks 33rd, improved from 55th five years ago. More impressively, among those metro areas, only Savannah, Georgia, and Tallahassee, Florida, in that time have seen a bigger percentage-point rise in black grads than Omaha.

The growth in black grads also has narrowed the metro area's black white education gap. In 2000 the white percentage of Omahans with college degrees was 2.1 times the black rate. It's 1.8 times higher now.

In sheer numbers, black college graduates living in Omaha have grown since 2000 from 4,300 to 7,700.

There also has been marked growth in the number of Hispanic college grads in Omaha in that time. Four-year grads are up from 2,200 to 4,800, though such grads still represent only about 12 percent of the Hispanic population 25 and above, a figure that hasn't changed much.

Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network, a north Omaha community development organization, had recently noted the spike in black education levels. He said it goes hand in hand with other positive trends, including falling unemployment and poverty rates, fewer high school dropouts and an increase in black owned businesses.

"Education is critical," he said. "We still have issues to address with a sense of urgency. (But) there is a lot more focus on getting African-American kids to college and more programs and support available to assist students getting through college."

Research has long documented the barriers to college success faced by economically disadvantaged students.

They often arrive as freshmen less academically prepared. They can struggle financially, many working their way through school or being forced to drop to part time or drop out due to family financial crises.

Often they represent the first generation in their family to attend college, leaving them few role models and little guidance on what's required to succeed.

"When you're the first in your family to navigate the financial aid process and to sit in a college classroom, it's a foreign land," said Joshua Williams, a 2011 UNO graduate who now serves as coordinator for inclusion and equity on campus.

UNO has long recognized the barriers faced by disadvantaged students, more than four decades ago launching the Goodrich scholarship program. Besides providing state-funded tuition assistance, Goodrich provides low-income students close interaction with faculty and fellow Goodrich students, instruction in study skills, tutoring and other support services designed to reduce isolation and boost chances of success.

Such efforts were significantly ramped up in 2008 when the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation launched the Thompson Scholars Learning Community on the NU campuses in Omaha, Lincoln and Kearney.

While offering scholarships for needy students and support services similar to the Goodrich program, the Thompson community is much larger. At UNO, Goodrich currently enrolls 277 students overall, 36 of them black; Thompson includes 84 black students and 923 in all.

"It's a very conducive environment to be successful," said Chris Knight, a 2012 grad who was among the first black students in UNO's Thompson community.

It's likely no coincidence that UNO black graduates have particularly spiked in the years since Thompson came on line.

UNL has similarly seen black grads hit all-time highs. And in December, the school was cited in a study by Education Trust for narrowing the graduation rate gap for black, Hispanic and Native American students more than any school in the country.

Amy Goodburn, UNL's interim dean of enrollment, attributed the school's gains to a number of factors, including the school's general efforts to boost retention of all students, programs specifically supporting disadvantaged students and the Thompson community.

"It's a game-changer for those students," Goodburn said of the Thompson program. "It's a community that creates a sense of belonging."

However, while UNO has seen big gains in its black enrollment — up 30 percent over the last decade — and in its number of black graduates, its black graduation rates are only marginally higher than they were in the early 2000s. That's even as white completion rates at the school have climbed markedly.

To be sure, metropolitan universities like UNO tend to have lower graduation rates than other types of schools. Such urban institutions have more open enrollment policies, higher numbers of students who work or go part time, and more transfers both in and out.

But while UNO's overall and white graduation rates exceed those of its peer metropolitan institutions, that's not true for black students. Just 22 percent of black full-time, first-time freshmen at UNO graduate within six years, compared with 30 percent for its peers.

UNO officials have taken note. Two years ago they decided they needed to better support the school's nearly 800 black undergraduates, the vast majority of whom are not part of the Goodrich or Thompson programs. Shipp traveled with black students and administrators to UCLA to look at a potential model program there.

In the end, UNO created a new position in its multicultural affairs office whose duties include looking for early warning signs that students are struggling. The school has also created the Brotherhood and Sisterhood, gender-specific organizations that seek to provide some of the same academic services and peer connections that students in those scholarship programs receive.

"If I haven't seen them in two or three weeks, I will go find them," said Taricka Fairgood, who facilitates the Sisterhood. "They will not fall through the cracks on my watch."

Not all of the metro area's recent four-year black grads have been traditional students coming right out of high school. Many appear to be adult learners, including significant numbers earning degrees at Bellevue University.

State figures show Bellevue actually awards more bachelor's degrees to black students than any college in Nebraska — more than 200 a year — though it appears almost two-thirds of those degrees are going to students living in other states, taking courses online. Still, it appears Bellevue ranks second only to UNO in producing local four-year grads.

Terrence Mackey, who returned to school at Bellevue two decades after dropping out at UNO, said he appreciated the credit Bellevue gave him for his real-life work at Boys Town and its accelerated degree program. He feels his degree is now helping him give back to his community in his work as an Omaha police gang specialist in north Omaha.

Recent UNO grads Collins and Knight say they also hope to serve as beacons for their community. Knight says he stresses education to kids while volunteering as a youth mentor for 100 Black Men of Omaha.

"I tell them a lot of the things you may think are cool to do right now aren't going to be that way,'' Knight said. "The only thing that will last is your education."

Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

... BUT RATES TELL AMIXED STORY

At UNO, black graduation rates have only marginally increased, and the black-white gap is increasing. UNL is narrowing its black-white gap.

Six-year graduation rate for full-time, first-time freshmen

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA AT OMAHA

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA-LINCOLN

"Education is critical. We still have issues to address with a sense of urgency. (But) there is a lot more focus on getting African-American kids to college and more programs and support available to assist students getting through college."

Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network, a north Omaha community development organization

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.