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September 09, 2013 1:34 PM Preventable Casualties

By Ed Kilgore

While we are proud at WaMo to offer each year a quantitative approach to evaluating colleges that seeks to focus on what schools are actually offering students and society in exchange for the resources they consume, we understand the numbers only hint at many higher education challenges. So we’re happy to publish in the September/October issue of the Monthly a nuanced and very personal account of the struggle of African-American students to succeed at one “open-access” college with unusually low graduation rates, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The author, higher education writer Jamaal Abdul-alim, got his journalism degree from UWM, but not without encountering many of the problems that kept similarly-situated students from making it (despite in some cases assuming significant student loan debt).

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.

But returning to his alma mater to look into its dismal graduation statistics, Abdul-alim discovered a familiar pattern of inadequate high school preparation, cultural and family pressures, and chronic problems with remedial math courses (often taught by foreign instructors with limited English skills), that nearly derailed his own progress to graduation. His stories of individual students who succeeded and failed serve as cautionary tales against any quick-fix solutions.

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….
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.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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