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

College students who are struggling—with math, with a lack of academic focus, with the myriad other problems common to campus life—and who are the first in their families to go to college (as I was) must rely, more than other students, on college counselors and advisers. I know I benefited from good college counseling—it was my UWM adviser, for example, who recommended I take that summer math course at MATC.

When I went recently to try to find the office of UWM’s African American Student Academic Services, I learned that it had been relocated from the basement of a relatively quiet building on campus to the main corridor of Bolton Hall, a more central and heavily trafficked building that virtually all students pass through. There is a still-simmering debate at UWM over the merits of offering students of different races and backgrounds separate—or, as critics say, “segregated”—academic advising. Provost Britz told me during my visit that he sees both advantages and disadvantages for students and says that “the best approach is giving them choice.” The fact that the black advisers’ office has been moved from the bowels of a relatively remote building on campus to a much more prominent place seems to signify a certain institutional confidence in the merits of culturally centered student advising.

Some things about the office hadn’t changed. My former AASAS adviser, Diana Lawrence-Edwards, was still there (though about to retire). And the same inspirational poster I remember as an undergraduate still hung on her wall. The poster, which is laminated and has an African kente-style border, features twenty-seven business cards of black UWM graduates who went on to land careers ranging from an FBI supervisory agent to a CEO.

“SUCCESS IS IN THE CARDS,” the poster declares in black letters over a gold background (black and gold are UWM’s colors). “ASK OUR AFRICAN AMERICAN GRADUATES.” As we spoke, I kept eyeing the poster, remembering how, when I was a student, I wanted my business card as a newspaper reporter to be on the next iteration of the poster, if ever they made another one.

I asked Lawrence-Edwards why she thinks UWM’s graduation rates for black students are so low. “A lot of students are ill-prepared to come to college unless they go to the college-oriented high schools or suburban schools,” she said. “When they get here, I think it’s a lack of preparedness, and they aren’t really serious about college.”

One who is serious is twenty-two-year-old Austin Sellers, a finance major (and a Phi Beta Sigma) who’s hoping to become a corporate CFO someday. Sellers grew up in a violence-prone Milwaukee neighborhood, but his mother enrolled him in a high-performing high school in the nearby village of Brown Deer by putting down on the forms the address of a relative who lives in that suburb. “Moms wanted me to get the best education possible,” Sellers said. But the subterfuge was eventually discovered, and Sellers was forced to spend his senior year at his neighborhood high school, which by all known indicators was bad by comparison. “I didn’t have any motivation to take AP classes, any English or math,” Sellers recalls.

The decision not to take any math during his senior year ended up hurting Sellers—like me, he was put in a remedial math class. “Before college my last math class was my junior year in high school,” Sellers said. “I literally forgot a lot of the stuff … that I had to so-call relearn.” He has struggled with college calculus, a prerequisite for business majors.

For college advising at UWM, Sellers chose AASAS. “I’ve heard stories about people going to advisers that were white and other races and they gave them the wrong advice. They took classes they didn’t need to take or took the wrong class,” he said. “I felt like going to somebody of color that knows we’re not just a statistic by being in school, they were not just an adviser but a bigger brother or bigger sister.” AASAS, he said, gave him moral support and practical advice, recommending that he take some easy courses along with the hard ones in order to balance out the workload and thus better enable him to maintain a decent GPA.

But it’s the advice he didn’t get that has hurt him the most. Sellers graduated this spring, but it took him five and a half years to get there. The remedial math detour didn’t help, but the big reason, he said, is that he was only taking twelve credits per semester. No one pointed out that a semester course load of twelve credits, while considered full-time, essentially put him on the five-year plan. “Taking twelve credits a semester, you’re not going to graduate in four years,” Sellers said. “There’s no possible way.”

I asked him if the university did anything to get him connected to “real-world” experiences, as it brags in its promotional materials. “They didn’t talk about jobs until senior year,” Sellers said. “They didn’t give us these talks. They didn’t tell us, ‘Get your foot in the door.’ It was always ‘Graduate’ or ‘Pass this class.’ ” He recalled going to one “career-building” event where students were told to hand out resumes and network. I asked Sellers if the career fair paid off. “No,” he said. “But something is better than nothing. Going is better than not.”

When I reflect on my years at UWM and my recent return visit, I’m of the mind that the low graduation rate for black students is, as I suspected from the beginning, a complex combination of both systemic issues at the institutional level and an array of socioeconomic factors at the individual, family, and community levels.

I personally am resistant to the push within the so-called college access movement and among others to judge colleges and universities strictly by their graduation rates. I know of too many success stories among black UWM alumni—longtime Washington Post editor Milton Coleman, award-winning Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson, Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor, and Wisconsin Black Historical Society founder Clayborn Benson, the two latter of whom entered UWM through alternative programs—to discount what it means to have the opportunity to make something of yourself at UWM.

At the same time, though, even if UWM is serving some students well, the institution’s leaders should not be content to sit by and watch as preventable academic casualties take place year after year. An open-access college like UWM can be expected to have more students fail than highly selective schools, but there’s no good reason that its graduation rate is more than 12 points lower than the average for colleges with similar admissions criteria. UWM Chancellor Mike Lovell is clearly concerned with making UWM a better institution. For instance, he recently spoke of how, when UWM wanted to launch an entrepreneurship initiative, he had university representatives pay a visit to Babson College to learn how that school has managed to take first place in entrepreneurship in the U.S. News & World Report rankings for the past two decades. Why not make a similar study of how, say, Bowling Green State has managed to achieve remarkably high graduation rates, particularly for black students?

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


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