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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

When I look in particular at how algebra nearly derailed my college career and has, in fact, upended the college hopes of untold numbers of black students, it becomes evident that the university could solve the problem if it gave it a little more attention and effort. To its credit, UWM recently hired a coordinator to examine what other math departments are doing throughout the nation in order to learn from those that are having success. One program this person might want to look into is Statway, used by thirty community colleges around the country and developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Instead of trying to help remedial students pass college algebra—which, frankly, is useful only for those going into STEM fields—Statway helps those students pass college-level statistics, a course with far more direct applications to both social sciences and real life. With Statway, pass rates in developmental math were raised from 15 percent to 51 percent within one year.

With remarkable consistency, the students I met at UWM who were struggling or failing to graduate blamed themselves almost entirely for their fate. That willingness to take personal responsibility is admirable, and very American, and something to be encouraged, not undermined. But the truth is that the fault isn’t all with them.

Image credit: Gary Porter, Jamaal Abdul-Alim

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

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