Detroit students need more college pipeline programs

By any measure, Jamilah Jackson is the kind of millennial Detroit needs now.

The 2015 Wayne State University graduate is civic-minded, committed to mentoring younger Detroiters and has a promising career at a prominent public relations firm. As a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, my heart bursts with pride when I meet recent alumni like Jackson.

I am all the more proud because Jackson credits one of Wayne State’s signature pipeline programs with playing a major role in both her academic success and commitment to giving back. From seventh grade through college graduation, Jackson was affiliated with Math Corps – a WSU tutoring and mentoring program – first as a student and later as a mentor. The program recently received the NY Life Foundation’s 2016 Excellence in Summer Learning Award for its commitment to students in Detroit.

Founded in 1991, Math Corps features intensive programming for elementary through high school Detroit students designed to boost their math skills and ultimately their college readiness.

“Math Corps changed my life by opening me up to new experiences,” said Jackson. “The Math Corps taught me to own who I was and to appreciate being smart. Math Corps and the people in it taught me it was okay to be smart and they accepted me from the moment I walked in as a scared 7th grader. Their love and compassion cradled me and watched over me. . . They are my second family. “

Math Corps is one of the many pipeline programs that the university has established to help prepare underrepresented minorities and Detroit students for college success. Other programs include:

  • GO-GIRL (Gaining Options – Girls Investigate Real Life), a program designed to stoke interest in STEM careers in adolescent girls.
  • MED Direct, a program that annually gives 10 high school seniors with stellar grades and test scores advanced admission to WSU’s School of Medicine along with four years of paid undergraduate tuition, four years of paid undergraduate room and board costs in university housing and four years of paid medical school tuition. The program’s admission process gives preference to students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who are interested in studying health disparities.
  • REBUILD Detroit, a five-year joint program of Wayne State University, Marygrove College and the University of Detroit Mercy that uses a National Institutes of Health grant to create pipeline programs to attract and prepare minority and economically disadvantaged students to pursue careers in biomedical research.

Sadly, because of Michigan’s long and sad record of higher education disinvestment, the university does not have the resources to bring effective pipeline programs like this to scale.

It’s a real tragedy because Wayne State has seen its African American enrollment flag in recent years. There are a number of factors that have contributed to Wayne State’s drop in African American enrollment – including the declining number of high school graduates overall in our state because of demographic shifts – and they all need to be examined and addressed. The good news is that while there are fewer African Americans who are coming to Wayne State, the percentage of black students who graduate from the university in six years increased from 12 to 17 percent this year. As a board member, I am not exactly turning cartwheels over a less than 20 percent six -year graduation rate for black students, but I am happy to see the number moving in the right direction.

The truth is, if we really want underrepresented minority students to come to Wayne State and to be successful once they’re on campus, we need to continue to build and support pipeline programs.

As a close observer of both K-12 and higher education in Detroit, I am a great admirer of an innovative partnership between the Long Beach Unified School District, Long Beach City College and California State University Long Beach (known colloquially as Long Beach State). The partnership – called the Long Beach College Promise – has been a great boon to students in a city with socio-economic demographics that are very much like Detroit’s. Since the partnership formally launched in 2008, Long Beach schools have watched their higher graduation rates, test scores, AP class enrollment and college attendance rates climb. And Long Beach public school students graduate at higher rates than their peers at both Long Beach City College and Long Beach State.

The Long Beach College Promise not only gives students access to opportunities to visit college campuses starting in elementary school and tuition for one year of community college, but it gives student teachers at Long Beach State access to a closely-monitored urban teaching residency that enjoys the full support of the district.

A partnership like the Long Beach College Promise will be harder to pull off in Detroit. For one thing, Long Beach’s K-12 system is, as its name suggests, unified. Not so in Detroit, where public school choices include the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the Education Achievement Authority and a plethora of charter schools with various authorizers and management companies. That said, in the end, the potential benefits of partnerships between K-12 schools and higher education institutions in metro Detroit would surely outweigh the bureaucratic headaches that will likely ensue. Our kids are worth it.

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