Colleges' Retention of Blacks Dismal

By Janet Vandenabeele, and Jodi Upton | The Detroit News | July 15, 2001

Tyra Lumpkin dropped out of Oakland University
because of trouble adjusting to college life.
(It couldn't possibly be because of a low IQ! -- Jeff)

African-American students are dropping out of Michigan universities at rates far greater than whites, adrift at schools that vigorously recruited them.

A Detroit News investigation of seven Michigan universities shows that among black students who were freshmen in 1994, just 40 percent got their diplomas after six years, compared to 61 percent of white students and 74 percent of Asians.

"We're throwing them out after taking their money and they're getting nothing out of it," said Barry Mehler, a history professor at Ferris State University, who helped start a program to keep minority students in college. "We're mugging (the majority) of them, taking their money, taking their dignity.

"I feel like I am participating in a vast criminal conspiracy."

The falloff between white and black graduation rates here raises high-impact issues, because Michigan sits in the epicenter of the national debate over affirmative action in college admissions:

Experts blame a variety of reasons for high dropout rates among African-American students, from money to inadequate academic preparation to an unfriendly campus climate.

"A lot of students don't feel like there's a true effort to make universities diverse," said Bryan Cook, a doctoral student who advises black fraternities at the University of Michigan. "They think it's a show commitment and the programs they offer are watered-down."

Knowing why blacks are dropping out doesn't mean the universities are on top of the issue.

"It's the nature of the beast," said Lester Monts, U-M's senior vice-provost for academic affairs. "We just don't have a handle on this. Most universities don't have a handle on this at all."

When Mario Harper of Oak Park looks at pictures from his freshman year at Michigan State University, he realizes that a lot of African-American classmates who started with him are no longer around.

"There are so many who've just dropped out of sight, nowhere to be found," said Harper, an MSU senior who graduated from Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak. "I make sure I do the best I can. I want to get rid of that stereotype of the lazy black male. But it is a lot of pressure."

Better than average

U-M, Michigan State and Central Michigan are the only Division I schools in Michigan whose black graduate rates are better than the national average -- which, at 39 percent, is nothing to brag about. The reason: They are the more selective, and tend to get better-prepared and better-financed students.

The 10 years' worth of data analyzed by The News shows that the more selective a university is in choosing its students, the more likely its students are to graduate. That's clearly illustrated by U-M, whose admission standards are the state's toughest. Conversely, those that are less choosey about admissions have higher dropout rates.

Of the seven schools studied by The News, the graduation rate for black students is highest at U-M (about 64 percent over the past decade) and lowest at Oakland University (about 22 percent).

That compares to white graduation rates of 86 percent at U-M and 43 percent at Oakland University.

U-M, cheered on by other Michigan universities and blue-chip corporations, currently is defending legal challenges to its admissions policy, which favors black applicants over whites and Asians with stronger academic credentials. The case is likely to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

U-M administrators and supporters say a diverse student body is crucial to the quality of education -- and to the total college experience -- of all students.

Dropout figures, however, show there's not much racial diversity left, by the time students are upperclassmen.

Example: When U-M freshmen began in 1993, 67 percent of the class was white and 9 percent black. By graduation, the percentage of African-American students had fallen by a third, to just 6 percent of the class.

Graduation rates among black students are worse at MSU, Central, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Northern Michigan and Oakland universities. The News reviewed 10 years of graduation rates at NCAA Division I schools, because those are the only ones for which national rates are kept. (Wayne State University has not kept dropout records by student race until recently; the first set of six-year figures will be out next year.)

Hispanic and Native American students also leave Michigan colleges at rates higher than whites, and are equally courted by selective schools such as Michigan and Michigan State. But their graduation rates tend to be higher than those of African Americans.

College administrators recognize the moral dilemma of recruiting black students, knowing their high chances of failure.

"We want to make sure we aren't just pushing people in. That's unethical from my standpoint," said Lee June, MSU vice-president for student affairs.

Pay their own bills

While high dropout rates are commonly blamed on poor academic preparation, that's not the whole story, some educators believe.

Minority students tend to come from less affluent families, so when the financial aid check doesn't come, or the grant doesn't cover all the college bills, parents are less able to bail them out.

Black students may have to work longer hours at a job to pay their own bills, or to help out with a family crisis. Study time suffers.

Because fewer family members have even attempted college, black students may find themselves alone when it comes time to make a decision to stay in school, or quit.

Chandra Cross gave Wayne State University a try last year. But her dreams of a degree in computer science collapsed amid the weight of tuition payments.

Hoping to afford tuition working full-time at a Wal-Mart in Taylor, Cross was surprised to learn that students still have to pay for classes they drop. After a few semesters, Cross left. She's now working at a Burger King in Dearborn Heights.

"The classes were too big and you always had to run around trying to find your professors," she said.

But not everyone blames the universities. Some minority students fall victim to the same thing white students do: too much freedom.

"I just didn't go to class," said Tyra Lumpkin, a Detroit student who attended several semesters at Oakland University in 1999-2000. "I had become real lax and wasn't concentrating on school."

A few professors asked about her when she quit attending, but Lumpkin said she was aware of no programs designed to make sure she stayed in school.

"There were no black professors and most of the people in my classes were white, but that wasn't the problem. It was me." said Lumpkin, who hopes to attend Alabama State University this fall.

Recent good times may actually have worsened the exodus of minority students, said Rodney Lopez, a counselor in Wayne State University's Chicano-Boricua Studies program.

"When the economy is doing real well, they find good jobs and they like the money," he said.

In the long-run, however, the high African-American dropout rate is costly for taxpayers, as well as for the students themselves.

If they graduated at the same rate as their white counterparts, minority students would earn an additional $5.3 billion a year, according to a study done by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

And the state, already tightening its belt as the economy contracts, would be getting an additional $1.9 billion in tax revenues from those college-degreed, higher-paid workers.

Intimidating atmosphere

For some black students who have grown up in neighborhoods and schools with few whites, a predominantly white campus can be intimidating and unwelcoming.

"Sometimes there's a disconnect between universities and students of color," said U-M graduate student Bryan Cook. "It's not that universities don't have a desire to enhance diversity. But sometimes, those efforts backfire and don't work to make life for black students easier. That can be alienating."

Rina Henry of Detroit said she had little trouble adjusting to campus life at Wayne State. The bills were tough, though: She worked two jobs and paid the school $600 every two weeks.

Henry, a computer science major, left Wayne State about six months ago, but plans to return soon.

"I liked it, but if anything, I wish there was more hands-on teaching with the professors," she said. "You sit down in class, they write on the blackboard and tell you to do this, do that, read this, read that."

University officials acknowledge they need to make the whole campus atmosphere less threatening for everyone -- whites and minorities alike.

"The only way you foster true diversity and plurality is to foster interactions between all the groups," said Glenn McIntosh, director of Oakland University's Office of Equity. "(This) will lead to (producing) leaders of the 21st century. They will be more marketable."

Creating a climate that embraces diversity, at a time when race is a national obsession, is "a continual challenge," MSU provost Lou Anna Simon said.

"Do students believe there is a climate issue? Of course. ... Even when we do something (to encourage tolerance) students live in a larger society. We get 10,000 new students every year, each with their own perceptions," she said.

Overcoming long-ingrained ideas of social, academic and economic class may prove more challenging than simply throwing money into a new program.

Mehler, who heads the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism at Ferris, which was not among the colleges studied by The News, says don't underestimate the impact of stereotyping and racism.

"You have many professors who simply are racists. Their racism is based on their intellectual perception of reality," Mehler said.

Said Bill Bloomfield, a veteran of several national programs for minority high school and college students: "You need (change) sunk into the bedrock of the institution from an administrative, budgetary and cultural perspective.

"The issue isn't so much that the kids don't have the oomph to pull it off. It ain't the kids' problem."

Staff writer Joel Kurth contributed to this report. You can reach Janet Vandenabeele at (313) 222-2309 or mailto:[email protected]