Correction: This story has been updated to correctly identify the college from which Gabrielle Psalms Settles is receiving her degree and correctly identify Settles in a photo.
Gabrielle Psalms Settles knows she is beating the odds by graduating from college, so she’s planning to go to two Wayne State University commencement ceremonies this month to celebrate.
One will be with her peers in WSU’s College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. The other will be with fellow African-American students — a demographic enrolling more than ever in college but graduating far less often than their white counterparts at numerous universities, especially Wayne State.
“It’s about celebrating that we made it,” said Settles, a Northville resident who will earn a journalism degree.
“We are not the status quo that unfortunately has put us among the lowest graduation rate of students. This is a way of saying — ‘Congratulations. You made it. Keep going. You are now role models for other students who can do the exact same thing.’ ”
Settles is among 4,000 students who are graduating this spring from Wayne State — which for years has been among colleges that graduate black students far less often than white students. Among Settles’ graduating class are about 700 other African-American students, or just more than 17 percent.
This comes at a time when more jobs are demanding post-secondary degrees, African-Americans are still underrepresented on college campuses and higher education institutions are facing accountability on many benchmarks, including admitting and graduating students of color.
That’s why universities need to pay attention to wide graduation gaps between black and white students, and make sure no students are left behind, said Andrew Nichols, director for higher education research for Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization for students, especially students of color and those living in poverty.
“People need a college education in this economy to live a middle class life,” Nichols said. “As providers of higher education, (colleges and universities) need to figure out ways to serve all students, and not add to the nation’s economic inequality.”
Education Trust recently released a study that showed Wayne State has one of the nation’s worst completion rate gaps when compared to white students at 33.2 percentage points — more than twice the national average of institutions’ black-white completion rate gap of 13.5 percentage points. The report’s figures are based on a three-year weighted average from 2012-14 for students who graduate after six years.
But WSU is not alone. Many colleges in Michigan and across the nation struggle to graduate black students. Among the public universities in Michigan that landed on the report’s worst list were Oakland University (25.1 percentage point completion gap) and Saginaw Valley State University (26.6).
Even though WSU’s graduation rate among black students has steadily grown in recent years, the graduation gap between black and white students is still a problem, acknowledged Monica Brockmeyer, WSU associate provost for student success.
“The gap is a sign we are not providing the opportunity that all students need,” said Brockmeyer.
However, she noted that the Education Trust study doesn’t reflect two more recent years at Wayne State when graduation has dramatically improved for black and white students.
For instance, WSU’s graduation rate for African-American students was reported in the study as 11.1 percent averaged over three years, Brockmeyer said. But it went up to 17.2 percent in August 2016. White student graduation also has improved so the completion gap between black and white student is still high at 32 percent.
Meanwhile, overall graduation at WSU is also on the rise. It jumped from 26 percent in 2011 to 39 percent in 2016, and the university is on track to exceed exceed 40 percent this year, Brockmeyer said.
Much of the success can be attributed to numerous initiatives that WSU has launched to improve student success, primarily a $10 million investment in doubling the number of academic advisers over the last five years.
This has helped cut the exceptionally high ratio of academic advisers that Wayne State once had. In the past, the ratio in one academic unit had reached 1,100 students for every one adviser; now the ratio is about 275-300 students per adviser, which is less than professional recommendations of 350 students per adviser, Brockmeyer said.
Other efforts have also been launched to improve overall student success including its APEX scholars programs that bring in high school students with talent over the summer to bridge them into the university; changes to financial aid to help more students with need and software programs that help advisers identify students who need more help.
Wayne State’s efforts also include a goal in the university’s strategic plan of a 50 percent graduation rate by 2021.
“The president and provost and all of us are clear that narrowing that graduation gap (between black and white students) is critical,” Brockmeyer said.
“Our mission is creating opportunity for students, and ... that is not just opening the door to higher education, but making sure every student who comes to Wayne State has what they need to be successful here.”
Charles Parrish, president of the Wayne State chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and American Association of University Professors, said the university has to work harder at addressing the problem, especially since Wayne State is educating a shrinking population of the community where the university is located.
“We have an obligation to Detroit to help lift up the community we are part of,” Parrish said, “and I don’t know if we are fulfilling it.”
At Oakland University, leaders are using some of the same strategies as Wayne State such as adding academic advisers.
James Lentini, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at Oakland University, said the issue is a problem across the nation and colleges and universities need to address it.
“If we just go about our business, we are not helping them and we are not helping us,” Lentini said.
Meanwhile, Saginaw Valley has been actively working to improve the graduation rate of African-American students, and is seeing hopeful early signs as its retention rates have improved, said J.J. Boehm, SVSU spokesman.
“This suggests that we will see improved graduation rates for this population in the years to come,” said Boehm. “We would like to see more substantial progress, and our provost created a committee of faculty and staff last year to specifically work toward closing this achievement gap.”
In general, graduating students from college is still a challenge for many universities, including in Michigan. Nationally, universities graduate 60 percent of students on average after six years, but Michigan has come in around 50 percent.
Jasmyne Brantley, president of WSU’s Black Student Union, said many students who leave Wayne State go to community colleges or take time off to work to save for tuition and go back.
The process to address the problem has been slow but at least it’s started, said Brantley, a senior from Detroit studying social work.
“I am hopeful,” she said. “Everything takes time, but change will come.”