Wayne State University was getting national attention for having one of the worst graduation rates, especially among African American students, in 2013 when President M. Roy Wilson arrived.
Michiganians of the Year
In the years before his tenure, WSU's six-year graduation rate hovered in the 30% range and sunk as low as 26% in 2011. Graduation rates for Black students were markedly worse: 7.6% of Black graduates were graduating within six years in 2011.
Graduation rates were slowly improving when Wilson arrived. The year before, in 2012-13, the six-year graduation rate for all students overall was 27.6%, three times the 9.2% of African American students who were graduating in six years.
Wayne State has since increased its overall six-year and African American graduation rate to 55.8% and 34.6%, respectively, in 2021.
It is why Wilson is a The Detroit News 2022 Michiganian of the Year.
"Roy is deeply committed to this," says M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and who served as Michigan State University president from 1993 to 2004.
M. Roy Wilson, Michiganian
The Detroit News
The APLU bestowed the 2018 Degree Completion Award on Wayne State for using innovative ways to help students complete degrees and having the most improved college graduation in the nation.
"When you spend the time and money to go to college, you need to graduate," says McPherson, a 1998 pick by The News for Michiganian of the Year. "It's what provides greater opportunity, and jobs. Roy and his excellent team have done a fabulous job, and it's recognized nationally among his peers."
The disparity among African American students leaving WSU without a degree was especially concerning, Wilson says, because beyond the impact on the student it also "has intergeneration effects if you can't break the cycle."
"If you don't have a diverse workforce and have one segment of society that is making it and getting the good jobs ... you not only widen the income gap between minorities and non-minorities, you also widen other gaps," Wilson says, pointing to quality of life, life expectancy and health. "It's not just an issue of lifetime income, it's an issue of what kind of life you are going to lead."
Before he arrived, WSU committed to investing $10 million over five years to retain students.
Wilson says the university also had to change its culture.
"It was all hands on deck," Wilson says. "Every student counted."
The curriculum was revamped. African American students started mentoring other students. WSU changed numerous financial policies such as abandoning the use of collection agencies. In 2018, it became one of the first schools to change a policy that previously banned students from registering for a semester if they had a small debt.
Rio Benavides, financial manager at Wayne State, says that Wilson has led the university in many areas of improvement.
"He's one of the greatest presidents this university has ever had," Benavides says.
Wilson says the next step is to close the graduation gap between White students and students of color.
WSU joined an APLU initiative that asked universities to commit to a goal of increasing graduation rates by 1.2% each year overall and by 2.7% each year for minority students. That goal would lead to parity by 2035, which is too much time, according to Wilson. That's why Wayne State committed to a 4.6% graduation rate increase each year so that parity could be reached instead by 2030. Wilson says that WSU is ahead of schedule.
"You bring in kids in, schools are obligated to graduate them," he says. "They incur debt and then they don't graduate. You are doing a disservice to the students, and a disservice to society. It's an issue of justice."
M. Roy Wilson
Occupation: Wayne State University president
Education: Bachelor's of science, Allegheny College, 1976; master's of science, UCLA, 1990; M.D., Harvard Medical School, 1980
Family: Wife Jacqueline Wilson and children Presley Rei Wilson and Travis Yoshio Wilson
Why honored: For dramatically increasing the graduation rate, especially among African American students.