Study: Michigan among worst in black university enrollment

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
Friends Sandra Yacoub and Khadija Williams, right, greet each other with a hug on "The Diag" on  campus in Ann Arbor.  Williams will graduate this spring, one of the African American students who make up just 4%  of the enrollment at the University of Michigan.

Khadijah Williams was raised in a low-income home by a single mother and attended high school in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago. 

But her life began to change four years ago when she enrolled at the University of Michigan. This spring, she will join the relatively few African Americans who will be among UM's Class of 2019, and plans to take a gap year off before heading to law school.

"It important for African Americans to have a college degree," said Williams, 21, "because you can't advance without one."

Williams is an outlier at public colleges and universities across the country, including Michigan, because most fail to enroll and graduate African Americans at a proportion reflective of  the demographics of their states, according to a report released last month.

 African Americans are underrepresented across the board in higher education, especially at four-year public institutions, according to the "Broken Mirrors" report by The Education Trust.

Michigan ranked the third-worst out of 41 states the report examined for black student enrollment at four-year institutions in 2016. Only 8.7 percent of undergraduate students at Michigan's 15 public universities are black, while it should be 17.1 percent, according to the report.

Additionally, black graduates make up a fraction of their white counterparts: In Michigan, 25.9 percent of African Americans have a college degree, compared with 41.6 percent of whites.

"It's an issue of equity," said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based education advocacy organization. 

Amid outrage over the recent college admissions bribery scandal, some advocates like Del Pilar call the under-representation of African Americans the real scandal in higher education because it's legal, not a secret and affects thousands of young people's ability to ascend socially and economically.

The issue, said Del Pilar, is complex: Low-income and students of color are more likely to go to K-12 schools that are poorly funded and have less access to resources.

Additionally, state policymakers are not investing adequately in higher education and administrators at some institutions fail to prioritize student success, he said.

"We need to be providing low-income students and students of color with the same opportunities that we are providing other residents in the state," Del Pilar said. "That's the scandal."

It's especially critical, Del Pilar said, because it's estimated that 60 percent of jobs are going to require post-secondary education by 2025.

"Given what we know about the changing job market, if we want to close attainment gaps, if we want to close equity gaps … we are going to have to educate everyone," he said.   

 The report shows severe under-representation of African American students at most higher education institutions across the nation when compared to the population of each state, with enrollment failing to reflect demographics.

In Michigan, 17.1 percent of black residents ages 18-49 have a high school diploma, but not a degree, a key segment of the population that should be on the radar of policy decision-makers, Del Pilar said. 

University of Michigan students walk to class on the campus in Ann Arbor.  
The percentage of black student enrollment at all of Michigan's four-year public universities is the third worst in the nation, according to a report by The Education Trust.

At Michigan's 15 public universities, the highest percentage of black students were enrolled at Eastern Michigan University (19.6 percent), Wayne State University (17.2 percent) and the University of Michigan-Flint (14.1 percent) in 2016, according to the latest federal data available for the report.

By contrast, at UM, 4.3 percent of students were black, and at Michigan State University, 7 percent. Michigan Technological University enrolled the lowest percentage of black students, 1.1 percent.

Meanwhile, the six-year graduation rate among black students in Michigan is among the nation's worst.

Michigan, along with seven other states, would need to more than double the number of black students earning bachelor’s degrees to reflect its demographics, according to the report.

The six-year graduation rate for black students in 2016 was the worst at the institutions that enrolled the most black students: Wayne State University (17.4 percent), Saginaw Valley State University (19.5 percent) and Eastern Michigan University (20.4 percent).

Monica Brockmeyer, senior associate provost for student success at Wayne State, calls the report "depressing" but said it did a good job of presenting the issue in context: The problem encompasses not only the public universities but also funding models for K-12 education, adults in the community who don't have a college education and more.

"This is an ecosystem problem," said Brockmeyer. "If you look black students relative to the overall black population, it really demonstrates that (this problem has) been piling up for a while. It’s looking at inequality ... and the implications of the decisions we’ve all been making over the last 10, 20, 30 years that we have to remedy.

"And it’s not going to be a remedy that happens by just recruiting more high school students.”

Brockmeyer said the graduation rate of African Americans at Wayne State has tripled over the past seven years, from 7.5 percent in 2011 to 22.6 percent in 2018, due in part to millions of dollars in investments in student success initiatives.

"We are graduating more black students than ever," Brockmeyer said. "But it's not nearly high enough."

She attributed that progress in part to numerous efforts at Wayne State, including the Warrior Way Back program, which last year began forgiving up to $1,500 of debt for students who re-enroll and finish their degrees. 

She also pointed to the WSU Warrior Vision and Impact Program, a series of early support workshops piloted in 2017 that provides academic, career, research, financial literacy and mentoring support to select students. Brockmeyer said the initiative has put retention rates of black students on par with their white counterparts, and in some cases, exceeded them.

"Black students, first-gen and low-income students are the faces of 21st century education," Brockmeyer said. "If we as a state and country don’t educate students of color, including black students, we are going to fail. It has to include everybody; otherwise, we are not going to have the talent that we need to drive the state we need to have, a state where people want to grow and live."

A particular challenge, she said, is persuading officials outside higher education to view student success as an investment.

"We've made millions of dollars in investments every year to get these increases in graduation rates, but the state has not restored us to our 2011 funding rate, even though we are more positioned in the state to move the needle on these numbers," Brockmeyer said.

Eastern Michigan has focused on serving students in a way that improves retention and graduation rates, spokesman Geoff Larcom said in a statement.

In recent years, four-year, five-year and six-year graduation rates have increased across the board, and EMU seeks to increase six-year graduation rates for first generation and under represented groups by 3 percentage points, Larcom added.

EMU is working to increase graduation rates with targeted advising services, analytics and scholarships "to combat the clear income challenges and disparities that many Eastern students face relative to various other student bodies in Michigan," Larcom said.

He pointed to numerous initiatives, including EMU's Brotherhood and Sisterhood programs, which promote shared experiences for minority students, and EMU's Gateways to Completion program, which works to improve student learning and success in high-enrollment courses that have historically resulted in failing grades or withdrawal, especially for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. 

EMU is also working to make college affordable, especially for first-generation, at-risk, low-income students, Larcom said, noting the school's Education First Opportunity Scholarship — a program that provides full tuition coverage combined with Pell Grants, similar to UM's "Go Blue Guarantee" initiative.

"The university has made student retention and completion an institutional priority, with a strong focus on minority groups," Larcom said, "and is seeking to further improve on those numbers through a variety of goals and actions."