Detroit — When Robert Williams III graduated last spring from a Detroit public high school, sticking around town to go to college at Wayne State University was a no-brainer for him.
He gets to be around his family, be a part of the community and participate in Detroit’s evolution.
“It’s in the area, and I love my city,” said Williams, who graduated from the Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine in Detroit. “I see no reason to leave.”
But Williams, 18, is an anomaly: He is among a small number of African-American students from Detroit Public Schools Community District heading to Wayne State. And those numbers have plummeted over the past decade — from 168 men and 348 women newly enrolled in 2006 to 33 men and 54 women in 2016, the latest data available from WSU.
The 87 new African-American students from Detroit’s public schools represent a fraction of the 27,298 students enrolled in 2016 at Wayne State, a university in the heart of a city working to reinvent itself.
Some have framed the drop as a barrier to Detroit’s revival — and Wayne State’s hopes to be part of it.
“Wayne State has always had a wall around it, and it’s been disconnected for far too long,” said the Rev. Charles Williams II, president of the Michigan chapter of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, a civil rights organization. “They need to do more to tear down that fortress of being a Midtown institution by getting into the neighborhoods ... otherwise, they can’t take part in the Detroit to come.”
But WSU officials say the situation involves more than enrollment numbers, and that they are working to not only enroll black students but bring them to the finish line of graduation.
President M. Roy Wilson noted the student population at the Detroit Public Schools Community District has been steadily shrinking, a trend seen among the population of high school graduates across the country.
Additionally, many Michigan public universities, including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, have invested in Detroit and are recruiting the city’s smaller pool of students.
“In 2006, we were the only game in town,” Wilson said. “Many universities want to have a more diverse student body, and Detroit is where there is a diverse minority student population.”
Part of the problem is what WSU has labeled the “student churn.” While nearly 1,000 black students were enrolled at WSU in 2005, within two years, two-thirds of them left the university before graduating, Wilson said. But because subsequent years brought big classes of black student enrollment, it wasn’t apparent that black students were leaving the university — without a degree, and often with a load of debt.
“There is nothing worse than bringing a student in, having them go into debt and leaving without a degree,” Wilson said. “It’s better that they didn’t go to school because they have nothing to show for it, no certificate, no degree, and they have $30,000 to $40,000 in debt. So they start off life with no increase in earning potential and with debt.”
Wayne State tightened standards for admissions starting in 2013, but the school’s number of African-American students from Detroit schools had been on the decline even before then.
U.S Rep. Debbie Dingell, a former WSU board member, called the situation “awful.”
“One of the most important things we need to do is make sure that every young person has access to quality, affordable education, and we are not doing that in the city of Detroit,” said Dingell, D-Dearborn.
Detroit is 80 percent African-American, according to census figures. But only 15.3 percent of Wayne State’s overall student population in 2016 was African-American, down from 23 percent in 2011.
Monica Brockmeyer, WSU associate provost for student success, said black students who have been on WSU’s campus in recent years are showing remarkable progress in earning degrees.
Though the number of students from Detroit Public Schools has gone down, Wayne State is rapidly increasing its graduation rate of African-American students overall.
Over the past six years, the six-year graduation rate of African-American students at WSU has gone from 7 percent in 2011 to an expected 20 percent this year.
“We’ve nearly tripled the black graduation rate,” said Brockmeyer. “The number of black students at graduation is going up even if the number of black students is going down. We’re serving more students more effectively.”
Meanwhile, the Detroit Public Schools Community District sent 41 percent of its 2,629 graduates in 2016 to college, according to spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson.
Of the 1,078 Detroit public school students who were college-bound, the largest number — 191 — enrolled at MSU. Another 121 students went to the Wayne County Community College District, 120 enrolled at Wayne State, 83 went to Eastern Michigan University, and the majority of the rest were enrolled at a variety of institutions throughout Michigan and the region, Wilson said.
Once they arrive, Wayne State is working closely with them. Just last week, 75 African-American male students met with a group of WSU black male staff known as The Network, working to mentor young men at the university. The program started last year, and it was small. But the students were so excited by the program, Brockmeyer said, they helped recruit others into it.
“It’s like nothing that has been seen on this campus in a long time,” Brockmeyer said.
Even so, some say Wayne State needs to step it up.
“African-Americans need to have the same opportunities as other students have for higher education,” said Woodhaven resident Theresa Saunders, whose daughter, Dalesalee, is a freshman this year.
Wilson said WSU has a number of programs to create a pipeline of Detroit students to the university.
“Just because we’re located in the city doesn’t mean we should mirror the population of the inner city,” Wilson said. “When you look at urban research universities, our peers, across the country, they are also in similar environments ... and yet their African-American numbers are very similar to ours. In fact, we may be one of the most diverse research universities in the country.”
But the Rev. Malik Shabazz said that for Detroit to move forward, Wayne State must play a role and help its citizens climb out of poverty and into the middle class.
He pointed to UM’s recent announcement that it would offer free tuition to students from families earning up to $65,000 a year, and said Wayne State should take similar steps to be creative and attract more city students.
“They are a Detroit institution, and I know they are international, but they need to behave like a Detroit institution,” said Shabazz, head of Black Panther Nation and a community activist. “It is important to recruit Detroiters to Wayne State because education opens up doors that are closed. Education is the passport to the future.”