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

The struggles I had with math at UWM are extremely common. Consider, for instance, the story of Shakara Robinson, a twenty-three-year-old Milwaukee newspaper reporter who earned all the credits she needs for a journalism degree last year—except for the three necessary to satisfy her math requirement. Robinson donned a cap and gown and posed for photographs with her parents at UWM’s graduation ceremony in May 2012, but the university withheld the actual degree. Last spring she tried an online math course at MATC to fulfill her requirement but was unsuccessful. She said she plans to try an in-person course again this fall. In the meantime, her bachelor’s degree from UWM remains in abeyance while she begins to make payments on $34,000 in student loan debt.

Then there is twenty-four-year-old James Grays, who required two tries at UWM to make it out of remedial math, a struggle made harder, he says, by the same problem I encountered: a language gap with his foreign-born instructor. “If you didn’t understand she’d repeat it, but she didn’t understand sometimes that we didn’t understand the things she would say,” Grays recalled. “I think that was a handicap with us because we’re trying to understand the material but [also] understand her. So a disconnect was there.”

Many UWM faculty and administrators I spoke to know that the university has a problem when it comes to math completion rates. It’s not clear, though, whether their heads are sufficiently in the game when it comes to the tough task of changing the institution to better serve at-risk students. For instance, a decade ago, the UW Board of Regents, aware of studies showing that students who complete remedial math during the first year do better overall, passed a rule requiring students to complete remedial math within the first thirty credits. Only now does the UWM administration say it plans to start enforcing that rule. “I don’t know why it wasn’t enforced,” Britz, the UWM provost, told me. Research also shows that careful measurement of academic outcomes is key to improving graduation rates. But the math department at UWM cannot tell you what the pass rates are for its introductory algebra course overall, much less by race and ethnicity.

To help students like Grays, the UWM math department has been trying some new approaches. One is a Web-based course called ALEKS that uses artificial intelligence to enable students to work online at their own pace and keep track of their progress in various areas using a pie chart called “My Pie.” When I met Grays in his college algebra class at UWM this past April, he seemed fairly confident that he would finally satisfy the college’s math requirement.

“I think I’ll pass it,” Grays said as he sat in front of a flat-screen Dell computer in room E375 of the Engineering and Mathematical Sciences Building. “I feel more confident in this because it’s more hands-on and it’s your doing,” Grays said. “You can’t fault the teacher too much for saying you didn’t pass. If you didn’t pass, it was more on your end.”

Education reformers have great hopes that ALEKS and similar computerized learning systems can help struggling students like Grays, but studies of such systems so far show mixed results. When I checked back in late May to see how Grays had done in the course, I had really hoped to hear that the young man—who, incidentally, once came within six-tenths of a second of the Wisconsin high school state record in the 400 meter event (he ran it in 49.83 seconds)—had cleared this particular hurdle. But it was not to be.

Solve for X: Briana Bearden, an incoming freshman at UWM, works on her math skills in a summer prep program. Failing to pass basic math requirements is one reason why more than 80 percent of African American students fail to graduate from UWM.

“The final didn’t go as well as I had hoped,” Grays told me over the phone. He said he earned a D in the course—a non-passing grade—and planned to meet with his adviser before attempting the class again. “I guess I made little mistakes,” Grays said. “I didn’t really grasp everything.”

Aside from struggles with math, the most common problems I heard about in my interviews with students at UWM—too much partying, a lack of focus and discipline—seemed to stem from what P. J. Hampton and Lester Kern Jr. had told me in Little Africa: a lack of direction, of knowing what career you want and thus why, exactly, you’re in college.

Fortunately, I knew quite early in college exactly what career I wanted to pursue: journalism. I started writing part-time for the old Milwaukee Sentinel before I even declared my major in journalism. The only reason I stuck it out at UWM was that my editors at the Sentinel made it clear from the very beginning that, even though I was considered a “natural,” the only way I would ever get hired at the paper as a full-time staff writer was if I earned my bachelor’s degree.

Nick Robinson, a twenty-four-year-old 2010 UWM graduate who works at Uihlien/Wilson Architects, has a similar story. He first landed an internship at the firm back when he was still a senior in high school at Bradley Tech, Milwaukee’s technology and trade high school.

“I would come here two hours a day a couple times a week, update the materials library,” Robinson said during an interview at the firm. “One day someone asked me, ‘Do you know [the computer-aided drafting and design program] AutoCAD?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know AutoCAD.’” The firm eventually offered him a paid job working full-time during the summer after high school graduation, and he continued to work there as he made his way through architecture school at UWM. He said he never worried much about whether he would graduate on time. He earned his master’s degree in architecture from UWM this past December after two and a half years.

“I’m a very goal-oriented person,” Robinson said. “I hate to do stuff and not know why I’m doing it. I wanted to become an architect. I looked backward and said, ‘What do I have to do to become an architect?’ ” he explained. “It involved school, so I said, ‘I guess I’ll do school.’”

Robinson’s educational and career success was also largely a by-product of his upbringing and family background, as it was with me. “My dad, he’s an engineer. My mom is a court reporter, so I had a very strong intellectual base.” Other kids from less fortunate backgrounds, he noted, don’t have that base. “They don’t know that if they want to accomplish something, the only thing between them and accomplishing that goal is themselves,” said Robinson, who has been doing his part as a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. “They don’t understand that concept of, if you want something go get it. They think it’s some mystery. Like it has to work out in the universe. No, you put it in the universe.”

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


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