Wayne State’s Black Graduation Woes

Wayne State University under fire for low graduation rates for Black students

or at least the past five decades, Wayne State University proudly stood as Michigan’s most prestigious research university with a core urban mission.

Primarily a commuter school situated in the heart of Detroit, its Board of Governors, administration and faculty have long been committed to educating the widest swath of students from the metro Detroit region. There was a particular focus on being accessible to the working class, the poor, minorities and Detroiters.

Now, after a very real threat of a reduction in state aid from the Michigan state legislature if it did not improve its startlingly bad graduation rates, the university finds itself torn between the need to accommodate this mandate from Lansing while staying true to its unique identity as a “university of opportunity” for underserved students.

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According to a 2010 report by The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization which advocates for education reform, African Americans were 29.5 percent of 15,478 undergraduate students enrolled at Wayne State in 2007.  The report reveals that while the White graduation rate is low at 43.5 percent, the Black graduation rate is far worse at 9.5 percent. In other words, only one in 10 Black students at Wayne State graduates within six years.

The gap between the graduation rates of Black and White Wayne State students is 34 percent, the highest on The Education Trust’s list of the 25 public universities with the worst graduation gaps. This is the case despite having, by far, the highest percentage of Black undergraduates-29 percent.

How the university reconciles the competing demands for better graduation rates versus the challenges of an open admissions policy has set off a firestorm of controversy on campus. Advocates for minority students and the poor are accusing the administration of wavering in its historic commitment to remaining accessible to Blacks, Latinos and the poor, while numerous faculty members, administrators, Governors and alumni insist the school raise its standards. 

“According to Wayne State University, there is pressure from the federal government to change the graduation rates at Wayne,” says Norman Bent, a former Wayne State administrator who now serves as executive director of the Consortium of Hispanic Agencies in Detroit. “And Wayne’s response is to find students who can graduate faster … so it’s necessary for them to cut down on students from communities that Wayne primarily services.”

Wayne State University President Allan Gilmour concedes the abysmal graduation rate for Black students is an ongoing concern of the university. He says, however, that it’s unfair to suggest it is turning its back on its mission.   

“We are not forsaking our mission. We are continuing to be a university of opportunity,” he says. “There has been a lot of false information or needless worry on the part of some people.

“The fact that we have a low graduation rate is no one’s fault …we have high schools in this area, not just DPS, suburban as well, that have not done an adequate job of preparing their students for a great place like WSU,” Gilmour says.

Robert D. Tompkins, a sophomore art major from Detroit, says he is all too aware of the struggles of many of his peers who are fighting to matriculate. In his opinion, Wayne State seems geared more toward students in graduate and professional schools than undergraduates. However, he says the answer to the low graduation rates among Black students is not to put more obstacles in their way, but to provide them with better tools much earlier in the process-before they arrive on campus-to ensure better outcomes.

“… investing in bridge-like programs, better counseling and mentoring is the best route to take,” says Tompkins, a member of one of the last classes of graduates from the old Murray Wright High School in Detroit. “But Wayne State also has the right to make its own rules and set its own standards. It is major four-year university, and when you come here you should be ready to compete.”

Bent concedes too many undergraduates are coming to the university ill equipped for the rigors of college-level courses. However, he argues that we now live in an era of austere budgets and badly broken public school systems. A shift in Wayne’s traditional open admissions policy-from accommodating the underserved to emphasizing the recruitment of those who can more easily transition from high school-will inevitably lead to a decrease in Black and Latino enrollment, especially among those students from the Detroit Public Schools system.

“Not every student is going to be up to university standards, but we have to give them support,” Bent says. “So does an institution. The question, then, is what are they doing to ensure that students feel they are supported?”

Not much, says Wayne State history Professor Frances Schor, who says he sees a familiar pattern in the administration’s response to the challenge over its graduation rates.

Noting that he came to Wayne State in 1974 to teach in the College of Life Long Learning and its Interdisciplinary Studies Program, Schor’s intention was to make education available for working adults. However, after 33 years of success, the program was eventually de-funded because the university did not want adult part-time students, in spite of the fact the Black students in that program had a graduation rate of 1.5 times higher than those in the university’s traditional departments and programs.

“The Interdisciplinary Studies Program had smaller classes, tutors built into the program, and the university didn’t see it as a needed institutional arrangement to allow us to graduate African Americans at a greater rate,” Schor says. “We were able to demonstrate having small classes and institutional support is very, very important for traditionally underserved populations; particular for African Americans who might have not been served well in previous educational endeavors.”

Pressure from other administrators and even faculty eventually led to the demise of the program in 2007 because it was perceived as not sufficiently academically rigorous.

Schor says similar sentiments are now being expressed about Wayne State’s core mission by some within and outside the university who feel it stigmatizes and burdens the university with marginal students. “Looking at internal dynamics, there are people who saw the need to serve a different kind of population; one that took more credits, were campus-based and not part-time adult students.

“So, open admissions programs around the country have been under attack for years and years and years, and the corporatization of universities has continued unabated,” he says.

According to President Gilmour, all the glum talk about the university retreating on its commitment to underserved populations is untrue.

To address the problem of low graduation rates, the university is revising its admission standards and taking a more “holistic approach” to the admission process, he says. By the fall of 2013, all applicants’ standardized test scores and grades will be reviewed, taking into account how they may have changed over the course of students’ high school years. There will be a comprehensive look at applicants’ family situation to determine financial hardships or unique circumstances such as being the first to attend college. And extracurricular activities will be considered.

Gilmour figures that after such an assessment, perhaps up to a third of the applicants will need extra help in order to be eligible for admission. “But we will introduce a bridge program … such as summer school. [Students will] live on campus and take extra courses in English and math. And if they pass those courses they will be admitted.”

Gilmour adds that the university will create a special admission program-the APEX Prep for Success Program-which includes summer and fall bridge programs, enhanced counseling and success coaching.

It’s worth noting that several bridge programs already exist at Wayne State.

In addition, Gilmour says, the university will focus on developing programs specifically aimed at recruiting Detroit students, such as arranging for its recruiters to host DPS college fairs, tour top tier schools, host retreats for DPS high school counselors, establish Detroit-focused recruiting teams and work with students to take the Kales ACT Prep exam.

Also under active consideration is investing more resources in recruiting students of underrepresented racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds outside of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Even as he cautioned that the most well intended bridge programs might not be effective if students do not have a good support system at home, Wayne State sociology Professor Khari Brown says Gilmour’s new approach is reasonable.

Says Brown, a 1998 Wayne State graduate, “Just like the city of Detroit has been de-populating, people in the city are getting progressively poorer because the middle class is leaving and the public school system is under pressure because of high a concentration of poverty. Therefore, students coming out of Detroit, large chunks of them are not ready for a four-year university. And if you are behind two to three years, you need two to three years to catch up. And you are not going to catch up over a summer of physics, English and math courses.”

Distilled to its essence, Wayne State’s admittedly more rigorous approach to admissions policy will mean some students who previously might have been admitted will not be accepted. Not clear is whether this policy will translate into a significant reduction in African-American students since the administration is strongly suggesting it will recruit more heavily from cities with significant minority populations like Flint and Saginaw.

For many activists, President Gilmour’s words of reassurance notwithstanding, the new policy means  abandoning Detroit. Consequently, that means abandoning students who, through no fault of their own, were underserved by their primary and secondary schools and may not have had family who could help them academically.

“Wayne needs to revisit this policy and realize it is an institution that belongs to the city and come up with a better answer than turning its back on these students,” says Bent.

But Gilmour makes no apologies for preparing Wayne for what he believes is inevitable: “We expect the state standards will come and we want to make sure to maintain the reputation of WSU as good university with good standards.”

Trevor W. Coleman is a Detroit-area author and journalist whose biography of federal Judge Damon J. Keith will be published in October.

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