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September/ October 2013 Dropouts Tell No Tales

An African American journalist returns to his college alma mater to find out why so many students like him never make it out.

By Jamaal Abdul-alim

student
The right formula?: Incoming African American freshmen at UWM, like Rendell Giles, 18, have a less-than-1-in-5 chance of graduating in six years. Giles boosted his chances this summer by taking a summer prep class using a software program called ALEKS.

Back when I worked part-time as a crime reporter for the old Milwaukee Sentinel during my years as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), one of my regular duties was to check the log at the county morgue. In cases where a death was demarcated by a red-encircled H, for homicide, I’d obtain a copy of the medical examiner’s report to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the person’s untimely demise.

During a return visit to UWM one rainy week this past April, I discovered records for a morgue of a different sort. These records were located in room 170A of Bolton Hall in the office of African American Student Academic Services (AASAS). There, amid stacks of printer paper, a microwave, and a sign that says “Your Mama Don’t Work Here: Keep the Area Clean or Go Home!,” a pair of black three-drawer file cabinets stood filled with transcripts of black students who’d dropped out of UWM.

“We have a file cabinet designated specifically for ‘almost-made-it’ graduates,” a confidential university source told me, referring to the file cabinet labeled “CLOSE TO GRADUATION.” “These are shoulda, woulda, couldas. They’re like three and six credits away, but they don’t come back.”

The other cabinet, labeled “INACTIVE FILES,” contains records for students who’ve withdrawn in recent years but needed significantly more credits to graduate. AASAS keeps these records, the source explained, so if the students return, the college’s advisers won’t have to create their files anew.

In many ways, these transcripts are akin to the medical examiner’s files I used to retrieve from the county morgue. Instead of reporting how individuals departed the physical world, however, these records tell of how students departed from the university without their bachelor’s degrees—of academic lives cut short before graduation. In three out of the five transcripts randomly reviewed at this writer’s request, students had not completed the university’s math requirement, which is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for students at UWM.

The transcripts represent a rare behind-the-scenes look at some of the circumstances behind the abysmal graduation rate for black students at UWM: only 19 percent graduate within six years. (The university’s overall graduation rate isn’t much better, at 40 percent.) The point of my return visit this past spring was to answer this question: Why are those numbers so low?

One answer, which I heard early and often, is that UWM is a nonselective, “access” institution: more than 90 percent of those who apply are admitted, which means that many incoming students may not be adequately prepared for the demands of college. “We need to create equal opportunity for everybody,” said Johannes Britz, the university’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “But we cannot guarantee that if we create an opportunity they will be successful.”

But UWM’s graduation rates are not only low in absolute terms, they’re low even compared to other nonselective, access institutions. Bowling Green State University in Ohio, for instance, is almost as open access as UWM (admissions rate: 80.1 percent). But it has a six-year graduation rate of 50.1 percent for black students, compared to 19 percent at UWM. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 31.2 percent of black students graduate within six years from other four-year institutions with similar admissions rates—a dismal showing that’s still 12 percentage points higher than it is at UWM. (The national average six-year graduate rate for all students at similar access institutions is 45.4 percent.) UWM was cited in a 2010 Education Trust study for being sixth in the nation (at 28.2 percent) among public colleges and universities with the largest white-black graduation rate gaps.

Robert Lowe, an education professor at Marquette University who focuses on issues of race and class, said the low graduation rates at UWM are suggestive of a “massive failure aside from the factors that may have made students less prepared for higher education.” And merely providing access to higher education, without providing a pathway to graduation, does a disservice to those the institution is intending to serve. “If students end up in debt, end up without a degree, they end up damaged by the experience rather than expanded by it,” he said.

The university is by no means oblivious to its low graduation rates. UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell said the university hopes to increase its graduation rate to 50 percent in the next five to seven years by pursing an array of long-standing, new, and future initiatives, from summer bridge programs to special scholarships.

That’s a worthy goal, and an urgent one considering the growing national attention being focused on degree attainment rates. But to reach it will require asking an uncomfortable question: Why have UWM and its students so far fallen so short of the mark?

The first place I went to search for answers was an area of the student union dubbed “Little Africa” because of the number of black students who tend to congregate there to socialize and study. Indeed, when I was an undergrad, from 1991 to 1996, my fellow black students and I frequented the place. There I found Princeton Jackson-Hampton, a twenty-two-year-old information and science technology major known as P.J.—who was the president of the local chapter of Phi Beta Sigma. P.J. barely got admitted to UWM.

He credits his admission to a best friend’s father, who “knew some people” in the Academic Opportunity Center (AOC), a long-standing UWM institution that “educates and empowers a diverse group of students whose prior education and experiences may not have adequately prepared them for college, but who possess a commitment to higher learning,” according to the university Web site. In the fall 2012 semester, 101 of the 250 incoming black freshmen entered UWM through the AOC.

“When I graduated, I had about a 2.1,” P.J. explained of his high school GPA. “Part of the reason why I struggled in school is because my home situation was all messed up.” P.J. grew up on Fourteenth Street and Atkinson Avenue, in the middle of a diagonal business and residential corridor that slices through about a dozen blocks in some of Milwaukee’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods. My most vivid recollection of the area is when I went there to interview the father of a seventeen-year-old boy accused in the fatal carjacking of a black U.S. Marine. I watched as firefighters hosed the dead man’s blood off a school playground, where he had been forced to lie down before being shot by another seventeen-year-old boy in the back of the head, execution style. Homicide also claimed the life of P.J.’s father, whom P.J. met only twice—the first time when he was too young to really know what was going on, and the second as the man lay in a casket.

Jamaal Abdul-alim is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who specializes in coverage of higher education.

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