How Michigan fails black college students

As a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, I have become very familiar with the various lists that organizations and publications compile to rank institutions of higher education. Many times when a new list is published, I tense up as I scan it looking for my school’s name.

Recently, WSU was at the top of a list that no university wants to be on at all: Education Trust ranked Wayne State at first place on its list of worst performing institutions for black students. Our ranking didn’t exactly come as a surprise to me. I was largely motivated to run in a statewide race to serve on the board because of Wayne State’s dismal African American graduation rate. When Education Trust released its report on racial graduation gaps in 2010, Wayne State’s six-year undergraduate graduation rate for black students overall was 9.5 percent and that statistic was even worse for black male students – an appalling three percent were earning their bachelor’s degree in six years or less. Education Trust’s most recent ranking combined Wayne State’s results from 2012, 2013 and 2014 to come up with an average six-year graduation rate for black students of 11 percent, while white students graduated within six years of starting a bachelor’s program at a rate of 44.3 percent over the same time period – a gap of 33.2 percent.

When Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson joined the university in 2013, he and the university’s board immediately set out to prioritize strategies to boost African American retention and graduation rates. A team of academic leaders from Wayne State visited Georgia State University to learn about that school’s successful retention programs for underrepresented students of color. We learned that Georgia State eliminated its achievement gap for underrepresented students of color through “intrusive advising” programs that closely track and offer customized support to students who are struggling. Georgia State’s six-year graduation rate for underrepresented students of color is now actually higher than that statistic for white students.

Two years ago, Wayne State hired its first-ever Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and established our first-ever Office of Multicultural Student Engagement, which is charged with creating strategies to boost academic outcomes for underrepresented students of color. Since 2012, Wayne State has invested $10 million in programs designed to boost student success. As a result, as of 2016, Wayne State University’s six-year undergraduate graduation rate for black students is 17.2% — still nothing to crow about but a significant uptick from the nine percent black six-year graduation rate that motivated me to run for office in 2012 and the 11 percent three-year average African American graduation that is cited in Education Trust’s most recent report.

I have learned that when it comes to boosting outcomes for students of color in higher education, nothing is more important than having university leadership that prioritizes radical change. When our administration, board, faculty and students went through the process of drafting a strategic plan for the university a few years ago, many on campus encouraged President Wilson to set an incremental goal to narrow the racial graduation gap at Wayne State by 2021. President Wilson – and the board – instead set as our goal the total elimination of the completion gap between white and underrepresented students of color.

It should also be noted that Wayne State University is not the only public university in Michigan that is struggling with racial graduation gaps. Sadly, both Saginaw Valley State University and Oakland University are also ranked in the top ten of Education Trust’s list of the bottom performing institutions for black students, with black/white graduation gaps of 26.6 and 25.1 percent, respectively.

Despite Wayne State’s commitment to eliminating its racial graduation gap, there are external factors that need to change if underrepresented students of color are to thrive at Michigan universities that serve large numbers of them:

  • The state must change the way it funds and measures success for its K-12 schools. Michigan’s K-12 education funding system leaves most districts underfunded and a precious few flush with per-pupil spending options. As a result of funding disparities and lackluster education policy, Education Week’s 2016 Quality Counts state report card gave Michigan a “D” score for K-12 educational attainment.
  • There is also a preponderance of evidence that students’ grade point averages are more predictive of college success than test scores, yet, as my colleague Patrick Cooney explains here Michigan policy makers continue to prioritize test scores as the most important metric of college readiness. If we really want to see students thrive in college, we need to steer educators away from engaging in rote standardized test-driven instruction to curricula that help students develop critical thinking skills, creativity, strong writing abilities and other skills that aren’t measured on standardized tests but are critical to college success. This kind of instruction will require an overhaul of K-12 curricula and significant state investment and energy.
  • Michigan lawmakers need to reinvest in higher education to ease the tuition burden that causes many students to drop out before they complete a degree. In 1985, Michigan public universities received about 60 percent of their operating budgets from state appropriations. Today, the state provides about 20 percent of funding for public universities, with about 70 percent coming from student tuition. Lack of affordability is a major barrier to college completion for black – and all – students.
  • We need to rethink Proposal 2, the anti-affirmative action ban that has made it more difficult for universities to provide specialized educational supports – including scholarships – for students of color.

All of this matters because as my colleagues and I have written repeatedly, a four-year college degree is by far the most dependable credential for long-term economic stability. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study of median annual earnings for full-time workers between the ages of 25 and 32, holders of an associate’s degree earned $15,500 less than bachelor’s degree holders. Additionally, bachelor’s degree holders are more likely to retain employment even when the economy suffers. As my colleague Lou Glazer recently noted, it’s no coincidence that Michigan is 32nd in per capita income and 32nd in four year degree attainment.

Knowing how important having a degree is and will continue to be in an increasingly knowledge-based economy, we cannot afford to leave black students behind: Not at Wayne State University nor at any university in Michigan and not at the K-12 schools that should be preparing them to succeed in life and college.

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