Wayne State University President Roy Wilson PHOTO: Keith A. Owens

Wayne State University President Roy Wilson concedes that the graduation rate for African American students at his university isn’t as strong as it should be compared to other similar institutions. He also concedes that the report released in March by the Education Trust, which drew a considerable amount of negative attention to the university related to African American student graduation rates and sparked the conversation, is not totally wrong in all of its conclusions. To dismiss the fact that there is room for improvement would be to ignore the obvious.

But what the report fails to take into account – and this includes those who have reported on the report – is the significant amount of work that has been done over the past three years to tackle this issue long before the report ever came out. And the measurable achievement that has resulted from all of that effort. Because although it is undeniable that there are now noticeably fewer black students on WSU’s campus than in years past (a fact which can at least partially be explained by more competition among colleges and universities for students), what Wilson also points to is the higher rate of graduation among those admittedly fewer students.

“The main criticism has related to the African American graduation rate, and part of that has been fueled by a report that came out – the Education Trust – that showed that we have a very low AA graduation rate …and that the gap is wide between whites and blacks. The truth of the matter is that the report is not wrong, but it’s old data. Their data ended in 2014,” said Wilson.

“We started our work really looking at this and focusing on it in 2013. …So we have four years now, 2013 to 2017. And the progress that we’ve made is actually pretty phenomenal. The class entering 2009 would be the class that graduates in 2016. The overall graduation rate was 34.6 percent. The graduation rate expected after this summer session is over is 46.4 percent. That’s an increase of 11.8 points which is huge.

“Our goal that we set out was 50 percent by 2021. Well we’re at 46.4 percent already, so we’re going to hit our 50% mark very soon.”

The findings of the Education Trust report were referenced locally in an article by Steve Neavling in Motor City Muckraker, which stated in part:

“Only one in 10 black students at Wayne State University earns a bachelor’s degree within six years of becoming a freshman, the lowest rate in the nation among public colleges with a population of 10,000 or more, according to a new study.

“By comparison, the average graduation rate for black students nationwide is four times higher, at 41%, according to the report from Education Trust, a nonprofit organization. At the University of Michigan[-Ann Arbor], the graduation rate among black students is 79.2%.”

Again, Wilson doesn’t dispute that there are challenges, but he also stresses that it isn’t quite fair to compare the graduation rate of a University of Michigan to a Wayne State University, an urban university with significantly more challenges and that caters to a completely different population. One of the challenges faced by WSU that they have recently begun to address is the high rate of ‘churn’ among the black student population. Because although the numbers were higher in past years, the turnover – or ‘churn’ – was equally huge.

“It’s true that the numbers of AA students we have are much lower than 10 years ago. A lot of reasons for that. You can just walk downtown and see that you have 5 or 6 other universities have recruiting offices down there. Going after the same students. So that’s number one. But the more important thing, in my opinion, is that 10 years ago we had a lot of churn. We had a lot of African American students coming in but half of them were gone within two years. They were just coming and leaving. And then we would fill in those that were gone with another big class. And so it looked like there were always a number of African Americans, but it was a different group all the time because it was just churning. But what’s important is how many African Americans are being graduated now versus then.”

Wilson said that the number of black students graduating each year has increased steadily from 426 10 years ago to 585 this year in 2017.

Much of that change is the result of a targeted effort that began in 2013 to reverse that negative trend.

“When the decision was made in 2013 to really look at this issue and address it, we’ve invested more than $10 million in strategic initiatives.” Those initiatives include the following:

  • Creation of the Diversity Officer position within the Office of Minority Student Engagement
  • The APEX Scholars program for students, most of whom are minority, that are slightly below admission criteria and need some extra help. Success rate is very good. (special tutors, regular required progress meetings with advisors, etc.).
  • Nearly doubling the number of student advisors by 45 for a total of close to 90.
  • Financial literacy counseling
  • Peer and alumni counseling
  • Relaxing of financial barriers which disproportionately affects African American students

“Ten years ago is arguably the time when we had the most African Americans on campus  [but] the ones we get [now] we’re doing a much better job with, and that is what’s being missed,” said Wilson.

To give a better example of how the churn effect affected the student population, Wilson presented the following set of numbers:

The 2005 WSU freshman class included 953 African American students. By the following year, 2006, only 547 out of that original 953 returned. By 2007, that number had dwindled once again to 332 out of the 953. But then, the following year in 2008, 932 new students (freshmen) came in and… presto! The numbers were back up again.

“So it looks like there’s a lot of blacks on campus and everybody’s doing fine. But it’s just new students, this churn that’s going on,” said Wilson.

The following year, in 2009, was the beginning of things slightly taking a turn for the better. The percentage of African American students from that class who graduated in 2015 was 12.3 percent, which Wilson himself acknowledges was “unacceptably low.” But the graduation rate of black students this year by the end of summer session is expected to be 19.8 percent, which is an actual improvement of 61 percent in just two years (for the math wonks, just subtract 12.3 from 19.8 which gets you the increase of 7.5, then divide 7.5 by the original number of 12.3 and then multiply that by 100 and it actually comes out closer to 60.975 percent).

“There’s not a university in the country making that kind of progress, I can tell you that. We really are making major gains.”

This still doesn’t change the fact that white students are graduating at a much higher rate, even with the level of improvement. But when Wilson looks at the numbers and how they are trending, he remains confident that this gap will also close within a matter of years. The white

The white student graduation rate from the freshman class of 2009 (which graduated in 2015) was 47.6 %. That rate is expected to also improve at nearly the same rate as black students by the end of summer session 2017 with a graduation rate of 55%.

“There’s going to be a natural plateau that will be reached soon with white students because “in any urban university, even the very, very best are going to top out at between 50-60 percent 6-year graduation rate. Just because that’s the nature of the population we deal with. There’s not an urban university that’s above that. If we continue to do everything we do, we’re going to top out soon with our white students. They’re not going to be like Harvard and get up to 90 percent.

“What’s going to happen at that point is as the African Americans continue to improve, that’s when they start catching up with the white population. As long as both are improving at the same time it’s hard to improve that gap.

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