Features

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The other cabinet, labeled “INACTIVE FILES,” contains records for students who’ve withdrawn in recent years but needed significantly more credits to graduate.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.

Raised by his mother and grandparents, P.J. attended Dominican High School, a Catholic college preparatory school in the village of Whitefish Bay, an affluent suburban enclave that is sometimes contemptuously called “White Folks Bay” because of the homogenous nature of the affluent white families who call the village home. For P.J., traveling from his neighborhood in Milwaukee to school in Whitefish Bay meant traversing between “two different cultures.”

“I had to struggle there trying to identify myself with the people who went there,” P.J. said. “It was real hard for me having to catch the bus from Fourteenth and Atkinson and go into the suburbs and that’s my school, and go back to the reality of where I’m really from. Back to the violence and drugs and ran-down neighborhoods.”

When I asked P.J., as I asked others throughout my visit, if he thought the problem of low on-time graduation rates for black students at UWM was due to some systemic shortcoming at the institutional level, or various socioeconomic issues at the individual and family levels, P.J. had plenty to say.

“I think it’s a combination of everything you just mentioned,” P.J. said. “I would also say that a lot of black students come into college with the wrong mind-set in terms of what they want to do. They don’t come into this college knowing what they want to do, what career path to follow. They have their priorities mixed up. A lot of them do the partying more than school.”

As we spoke, a student named Lester Kern Jr., a dreadlocked twenty-three-year-old psychology major, entered the conversation and related a personal story that lent credence to everything P.J. had just said.

“I was partying too much for my first two semesters,” Kern said when I asked him why he was still a junior after having started at UWM in spring of 2008. He said he failed courses and wound up on academic probation. “The biggest factor for why I didn’t do well is I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” Kern explained. “I figured there was no big goal I was working toward so I felt if I messed up, no big deal.” Kern said he is still struggling to find his direction in life but realizes that “wasting time isn’t going to get me there.” He added, “I can’t blame anybody else but myself for why it’s taken so long.”

If there is anything to which I owe my own successful matriculation at UWM, at the top of the list would be something that many of the black students I met at UWM told me they lacked during their childhoods: strong familial and financial support, which I enjoyed growing up with both my parents in Sherman Park, a Milwaukee neighborhood that was experiencing white flight when my parents moved there in the late 1970s.

My father, who grew up in the Roger Williams Housing Projects in Mobile, Alabama, migrated to Milwaukee at the tail end of the Great Migration and worked for Wisconsin Bell (which later became Ameritech under AT&T by the time he retired). From the earliest days of my childhood, I remember my father talking about the need for me to “go further” than he did educationally, how he enrolled in a technical college once but was distracted by wanting to hang out with his buddies in a pool hall in his hometown.

My mother, a woman of Polish descent from Milwaukee’s South Side, investigated insurance claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She was always taking me on trips to museums and the like and exposed me to a wide variety of books, such as Manchild in the Promised Land, which she required her only son to read once he started to veer toward trouble in school and in the streets. I had my own desk and shelves full of books for as far back as I can remember. My parents earned enough to invest in a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica for me back when encyclopedia salesmen still went door to door.

Despite the mostly positive influences inside my home, however, I was not immune to the negative influences that lurked just outside. As the city’s manufacturing industry began its precipitous decline just at the onset of the crack cocaine epidemic, street gangs with Chicago origins had risen to a new level of prominence in Milwaukee, and many young black boys—whether fatherless or not—wound up defaulting to whatever gang dominated their neighborhood. In my case, it was the Black Gangster Disciples, or BGD.

Though I professed allegiance to the imprisoned leader of the BGD, Larry Hoover—or “King Hoover,” as we referred to him—I was never a hard-core member, and I was lucky to be absent during most of the gang’s fights and various crimes. But I wrote my gang name—Imperial “G”—in Magic Marker graffiti on garages, and after school I participated in an activity called “gettin’ roguish,” which essentially meant breaking windows and setting plastic garbage carts on fire.

Several of my BGD associates wound up in Wales, the juvenile correctional facility for Milwaukee boys who ran afoul of the law. I could have easily been sent to Wales myself: at one point, I took my father’s .22 to school to stave off would-be attackers who had made threats during a mysterious call; in another incident, I participated (albeit unwillingly) in a strong-arm robbery of some white boys on Center Street with an older BGD member named Tony New York. He is currently serving seven years in prison for robbery.

My parents married and divorced twice, the second time when I was in middle school. By then I was having relationship problems of my own. Although I managed to avoid becoming a teenage father, unlike several of my close friends, the first time I feared that I had gotten a girl pregnant was in seventh grade. (I could easily be a grandfather by now, and I just turned forty.)

My high school years were split between my parents’ homes and two different high schools. I spent my freshman year at John Marshall High School in Milwaukee, which had a broadcasting and journalism career specialty program. I wasn’t as interested in journalism at the time as I was in spinning records. This was during the Golden Age of Hip Hop, and like many basement-party DJs of the era, I kept my records in milk crates that I took from behind the nearby grocery store.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim
Class of ’96: The author, Jamaal Abdul-Alim, delivered pizzas and wrote crime stories for the Milwaukee Sentinel while an undergraduate at UWM. He credits his supportive family and the editors at the Sentinel, who said they would not hire him without a college degree, for motivating him to graduate.

As a DJ, I formed a rap group with my stepbrother, the son of my father’s new wife. When I saw my stepbrother’s homework, I noticed that it seemed more involved than what we had at Marshall. So I transferred to the school he went to, Greendale High School, in order to get a better education. Truth be told, the curriculum at Greendale was so rigorous that I couldn’t hack it, particularly when it came to geometry and biology. My GPA must have barely been above a 1.0. I felt estranged at the predominantly white school. I remember one episode of storming out of class when the other students began to laugh at a reference to roaches during a reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. Though they were ostensibly laughing at the plight of the black family that was the focus of the book, it felt as if they were laughing at black people in general.

It was during that time that I became enthralled with recordings of the fiery speeches of Malcolm X and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, samplings of which I first heard through the music of Public Enemy. What resonated most with me was when they would speak about how educationally estranged black people had become in the United States because black history is not reflected in the schools.

After transferring from Greendale back to John Marshall, I emulated the oratory of Malcolm X and Minister Farrakhan in my English essays and a column I wrote for the high school newspaper under the pen name Jason X. When I was sixteen I converted to Islam and changed my name.

Having left the influence of gang life behind, I was the type of high school student who carried a black briefcase, and I once circulated a petition to get a class on black authors to replace the ones we had on British and American authors. The class was ultimately implemented and eventually became so popular that the school had to offer three sections.

Two chance things transpired in high school that led me to pursue a career as a journalist, and one of them took place as a direct result of UWM. First, during my junior year, I won first place in an essay contest sponsored by the old Milwaukee Journal. The essay, about how to end violence in the inner city, fetched $100 and was published in the paper. I thought about that $100 as I found myself cleaning bathrooms the summer after high school graduation. I figured if I had gotten $100 for one essay that I wrote at the last minute, I might as well try to find a way to write an article a day five days a week and try to get $100 for each one instead of scrubbing toilets for minimum wage.

The second thing that led me to become a journalist was a visit from a black journalism instructor at UWM. Her name was Linda Presberry, and at the time she served as the UWM journalism department’s “liaison” when it came to speaking to largely black high schools, such as John Marshall. After Ms. Presberry spoke to us at John Marshall for career day or some similar event, I followed up with her on how to enroll in UWM. Enamored with Ms. Presberry for reasons that transcended journalism, I used to go visit her on campus in order to get a feel for what it was like, especially during the last semester of my senior year, when I only had to go to school half a day because I had enough credits to graduate.

I remember the elation I felt when I got my acceptance letter in the spring of 1991; one of the first things I did was tell Jihad, co-owner of the King Drive Deli, a Muslim-owned deli where I used to work as a cashier in the afternoons during my senior year before my evening job as a janitor. “Ah, that’s nothing,” Jihad responded. “Everybody gets accepted there.”

Even though he was basically right, I hadn’t known it at the time, and his comment made me feel deflated. Nevertheless, I began my studies at UWM that fall.

The most dangerous detour on the road to a college degree, especially for black students, typically arises freshman year, when students take placement tests to determine whether they’re ready for college-level courses or need non-credit “remediation.” According to a study of public universities by the nonprofit group Complete College America, 39.1 percent of African American students at four-year schools were assigned in 2006 to remedial math and English courses, versus 13.6 percent of whites. Two years later, 69.5 percent of African Americans had not completed the course or courses for which they were remediated; the noncompletion rate for whites wasn’t much better, at 63 percent.

Math is an especially big stumbling block, particularly for students whose high schools didn’t properly prepare them. I fell into that category, as did Mark Briggs, a fellow John Marshall and UWM alumni who now works for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. “We could have tested out of 090, 095, 105 [UWM’s remedial and basic college-level math courses] if we had taken algebra 1 and 2, calculus, and trig,” Briggs explained to me. “But the guidance department [at John Marshall] didn’t tell us.” Research has shown that students do worse on math placement exams when they don’t take math during their senior year in high school—a mistake I made myself.

At UWM, I ended up having to take a remedial course known as the Essentials of Algebra. I barely got out, with a C+; anything less than a C would not have counted. I then tried to take introductory for-credit algebra three times. Twice I withdrew because I found the courses too difficult. Once I earned a big fat F.

It wasn’t until the summer of 1993 that I took a transferable college algebra course at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), and passed with a C.

So what was different about algebra at MATC versus UWM? Beyond the fact that the MATC class was an intensive summer course that I treated like a part-time job, there was one important distinction. Unlike my college algebra classes at UWM, the one I took at MATC was led by an instructor who was born in the United States. The college algebra classes at UWM, on the other hand, were taught by foreign nationals who spoke with thick accents that made an already difficult subject even more difficult for me to understand (roughly half the teaching assistants at UWM are foreign nationals).

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.

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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.”

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?

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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