Struggling to graduate black students

Of black University students who enrolled in 2004, only 45 percent graduated by 2010.

Phil Binns works with fourth grade students to prepare for the math section on the MCA tests at the Southside Family Charter School on April 18th. Binns volunteers every week with the school as part of a requirement for class but believes strongly in helping others the way he was helped.

Erin Westover

Phil Binns works with fourth grade students to prepare for the math section on the MCA tests at the Southside Family Charter School on April 18th. Binns volunteers every week with the school as part of a requirement for class but believes strongly in helping others the way he was helped.

Amanda Bankston

Against the odds, and even against his own will, Phil Binns applied to the University of Minnesota. He considered attending the University only after a staffer for the Upward Bound Program, which provides college preparation and support for low-income or potential first-generation students, pursued him to the point of one day knocking on his door.
Binns, a graduate of North Community High School, applied without much hope. But in 2009, he and six other North students were admitted to the University.
Only three remain enrolled as of this semester.
More than half of all black students who entered the University in 2004 failed to graduate within six years, according to the Office of Institutional Research. The 2010 black graduation rate of 45 percent leaves blacks 25 percent behind the University average.
Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Robert McMaster said this disparity has been at the center of many administrative efforts in recent years.
âÄúDo we think about this and talk about this?âÄù McMaster said. âÄúAbout every week.âÄù
Black students, administrators and faculty all acknowledge the problem of the achievement gap and are looking for solutions.
The gap
In the spring of 2001, 999 black undergraduate students were enrolled at the University, amounting to 4 percent of the total undergraduate population. In 10 years, the black student population grew to 5 percent of undergraduates, with 1,454 enrolled this semester.
The number of degrees granted to black students has also spiked, from 153 in 2005 to 288 in 2010.
But even with these improvements, black studentsâÄô six-year graduation rate of 45 percent trailed their white peers by nearly 30 percent.
Four-year graduation rates are even more dismal: While 50 percent of all undergraduates graduate within four years, only 24 percent of black students in the class of 2010 graduated on time.
McMaster said improving these numbers is critical to the admissions process.
He said the traditionally low numbers of minority students kept the campus from creating a support system to help students of color succeed in the past.
âÄúI think as soon as the University started to make this a priority and started to put resources into it over the last 10 years, thatâÄôs when weâÄôve seen some remarkable changes,âÄù he said.
During the five years between 2005 and 2010, which McMaster defined as the âÄústrategic initiatives period,âÄù the six-year black graduation rate has increased by 20 percent, according to the Office of Institutional Research.
He said the recent gains are a reflection of the UniversityâÄôs increased effort to address the disparity.
Despite the recent upswing, McMaster said the University is determined to close the achievement gap between white students and other ethnic groups.
A reality check
On a Sunday night last November, Keith Mayes waited for his turn to speak at the Black Student UnionâÄôs annual Unity Dinner in the dimly lit Great Hall in Coffman Union.
He watched as a series of students and community members took the stage for speeches, choreographed dance routines and vocal performances that embraced the eveningâÄôs theme, âÄúBuilding Pillars of Diversity.âÄù
Just before dessert, Mayes, a professor in the Department of African American and African Studies took the stage and served up some bittersweet insight.
His short speech, which was meant to be something of a reality check, focused on the low graduation and academic achievement rates of black students on campus. He urged those in attendance to make education a top priority.
âÄúThe reason why I did it was because after eight years of teaching at the U, IâÄôve seen some trends among students that I donâÄôt like as a professor âÄîespecially as a black professor,âÄù Mayes said in an interview last week. âÄúOne of those trends is the low graduation rate of African-American students.âÄù
MayesâÄô message stuck with freshman Lateef Oseni, who was still struggling to make the transition to college life when he attended the Unity Dinner last fall.
Oseni, a first-generation college student from a mostly white suburban high school, said MayesâÄô comments made him re-evaluate his priorities and wonder about the impact of extracurriculars on his academic performance.
âÄúWhen I came here, I wanted to take in as much as possible,âÄù Oseni said. âÄúAnd thatâÄôs what IâÄôve been doing âÄî maybe a little to my detriment.âÄù
Though Mayes said his speech was specifically targeting very low achieving D and F students, he sees the impact of distractions and outside forces on the academic performance of many of the black students in his classes.
Among the problems Mayes has seen are students showing up late to class, turning in assignments past due dates and showing signs of poor study habits and time management.
Oseni, a communications student, continues to be involved in a number of multicultural student groups on campus. These activities may in fact be to his advantage, according to Jeanne Higbee.
Higbee, a professor in the department of postsecondary teaching and learning, has dedicated more than three decades to exploring sources of success and failure in higher education.
âÄúIn general, for college students, research tells us that the more involved they are, the more likely they are to graduate and be satisfied with their college experience,âÄù she said.
Rickey Hall, assistant vice president of the Office for Equity and Diversity, said that this idea is central to many of the initiatives designed to retain minority, low-income or first-generation students.
âÄúThe more people and places you are linked to on campus, the more likely you are to be retained,âÄù he said. âÄúWhen you develop meaningful relationships with people and they really care about you, you donâÄôt want to let them down.âÄù
Despite these positive effects, Oseni admits to putting off homework to attend a Voices Merging poetry slam or dedicating what should have been study time to his student groups.
âÄòThereâÄôs a lot of things we have to cope withâÄô
Higbee said the inability to keep up with the financial burden of a college education contributes to dropout rates of not only black students but college students in general.
Higbee, who admitted to being surprised by the high educational costs her two children encountered in college, said accumulating debt can be overwhelming, particularly for those who are unaware of where to look for help.
Less than a mile from HigbeeâÄôs office, in the basement of DinkytownâÄôs UTEC Building, Minnesota Internship Center Charter High School senior Herman Rodgers is trying to figure out what heâÄôll do when he gets his diploma in June.
The charter school is a last chance at a diploma for students who didnâÄôt graduate high school, like Rodgers, whose education was halted by jail time.
As a senior in high school, Rodgers was arrested for possession of a handgun and spent time in jail.
Rodgers, who wants to be an engineer, said he believes that even if he were provided a full scholarship to the University, he would not be able to handle the costs associated with campus life.
As heâÄôs passed through the charter school program, Rodgers has worked about 22 hours per week for a family friendâÄôs painting business.
âÄúI feel prepared education-wise, but financially IâÄôm not,âÄù he said of the possibility of attending the University. âÄúI would still have to work to maintain what I have.âÄù
Rodgers said he had planned to file for financial aid the day before he was interviewed last week.
âÄúBut,âÄù the 20-year-old said. âÄúI got on a

game and never got off.âÄù
Shafii Osman, a chemical engineering student, is living through the same fears as Rodgers, trying to balance school and support his family.
In spring 2008, when Osman was a freshman at the University, his grandfather died, and his older brother was killed in Seattle. At that point, Osman, the son of Somali immigrants, took on the burden of becoming the breadwinner for his extended family.
Osman took time off from school to tend to the financial needs of his family, for whom he still provides.
In addition to taking 17 credits, Osman has worked between 36 and 43 hours per week as a student security monitor since his return to campus. Once he pays his own rent, he needs to help pay rent and utilities for the aunt who raised him.
Osman uses himself as an example to explain his perception of where the lagging retention rates of his African-American peers stem from.
âÄúThereâÄôre a lot of obstacles for black students at home,âÄù he said. âÄúThereâÄôre a lot of things we have to cope with that make school a lower priority.âÄù
Osman said he has never encountered another black student who he thought wasnâÄôt capable of succeeding at the University of Minnesota.
âÄúItâÄôs not that theyâÄôre not smart enough,âÄù he said. âÄúTrust me, theyâÄôre smart enough.âÄù
Access to Success
McMaster said since 2005 the University has become increasingly selective for all applicants, including blacks, which has resulted in a narrower achievement gap in recent years.
As a result of higher standards and increased attention to students of color, the percentage of black students entering the University from the top quartile of their high school classes has increased by nearly 38 percent in five years.
However, the University has programs in place to avoid becoming too selective.
For more than 70 years, the University used the General College to admit and aid metro-area students.
The collegeâÄôs mission was to act as a gateway for students with a âÄúhigh potential for successâÄù who did not meet the UniversityâÄôs academic or testing standards for enrollment.
In a controversial decision, the University closed the General College, which had nearly 30 percent black enrollment, after spring semester in 2006. Those who favored the closure pointed to bleak graduation rates: Fewer than 8 percent of its students graduated within four years, and even after six years only 31 percent had degrees.
The University implemented the Access to Success program in 2008 with hopes of filling the void of programs offered through the General College.
Access to Success provides academic advising, counseling and support for students in the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Education and Human Development and the College of Biological Sciences.
Phil Binns is one of those students. The federally funded Upward Bound program that got him into college had been run out of the General College but now falls under the umbrella of Access to Success programs.
As part of the program, Binns spent each of his high school summers taking classes on campus and received intensive individualized attention to prepare him for college life.
Arsenio Ward said he wishes he would have received that type of attention.
Ward, who also graduated from North Community High School, remembers entering his freshman University writing class in awe of other students who had already done more intensive writing assignments than he had ever been required to do.
âÄúA lot of the problem is preparation before college in terms of K-12 education,âÄù he said. âÄúThe whole style of learning is different for black students altogether.âÄù
Higbee said part of addressing the achievement gap lies in recognizing WardâÄôs claim and focusing on potential rather than preparation.
âÄúWe need to be less concerned about what skills and knowledge students have when theyâÄôre admitted,âÄù Higbee said, âÄúand more concerned about what we give them once theyâÄôre here.âÄù
Too cool for school
Higbee said some ideas about the achievement gap perpetuate stereotypes.
âÄúOne issue is the idea of whatâÄôs cool,âÄù she said.
If itâÄôs not âÄúcoolâÄù in a studentâÄôs neighborhood to do well in school or be passionate about education, there will be ramifications down the road, Higbee said.
Lateef Oseni said society perpetuates an image that black students donâÄôt succeed. As somebody who hopes to pursue a career in media, Oseni wants to change how media is a source of the perception.
âÄúOftentimes, there is this stereotype for what success means for our community, and it often involves being an entertainer, whether thatâÄôs an athlete, singer or rapper.âÄù
Shafii Osman remembers sitting in the back of Washburn High School classrooms with black classmates who wouldnâÄôt even bring pens or pencils to school.
He said black students have grown up in an environment that has set them up for failure.
âÄúTell me one [television] show where it was cool if you were black to go to school,âÄù he said. âÄúCan you remember any black heroes who said it was cool to go to school?
âÄúThatâÄôs why I didnâÄôt have any heroes.âÄù
The gender disparity
Aside from that of black graduation rates, Rickey Hall has another achievement gap on his radar.
He is concerned about the disparity between the graduation rates of black men and black women.
âÄúAfrican-American women are faring far better than African-American males,âÄù he said. âÄúThe women are handling the business and men are lagging behind.âÄù
This is true on the national level as well, where the graduation rate for black men is 38.6 percent, whereas the rate for black females is 49.3 percent, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
Hall can relate on a personal level.
He said he remembers spending all day playing basketball, watching television and playing games while his female friends were studying.
Today, he puts effort into helping black men on campus avoid the same pitfalls.
Next fiscal year, Hall will be working with Office for Equity and Diversity staff and graduate students on a comprehensive retention strategy for African-American males to address this issue. Hall said women are better support groups for each other.
âÄúIf you walk around campus, youâÄôll see them studying together more,âÄù Hall said. âÄúAs men, weâÄôre more likely to try and do things on our own, which clearly doesnâÄôt always work as well.âÄù
Tola Oyewole  benefited from exactly that kind of female group support.
After graduating from the University in 2003, she went on to get a degree in international management and marketing from Hamline University.
Oyewole is now the senior community relations specialist for Best Buy. She said the University provides more than adequate resources for students of color but often fails to advertise them well enough, leaving it to students to seek guidance on their own.
âÄúThis is one of those schools where if you donâÄôt seek the tools and resources that are going to help you graduate, youâÄôre not going to stumble upon it,âÄù she said.
Oyewole said she owes much of her success to the guidance of older students who tipped her off to resources that helped her succeed.
In the same vein, Higbee said after decades of research and experience, there is a consensus about what the best method to retaining and graduating black students is: mentorship.
âÄúFor students who participate in that type of program, the year-to-year retention rates and graduation rates tend to be higher,âÄù she said.
The Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence, OED and HigbeeâÄôs colleagues in PSTL are taking this research seriously. Two PSTL professors have created gender-specific mentorship programs that address the gender performance gap among African-Americans.
This year was also the first for the MCAE Academic Support Action program, which offers faculty mentors to freshmen.
McMasterâÄôs next step will be to co-chair a committee that will entirely rethink and redesign the Access to Success program.
âÄòLiving check-to-checkâÄô
Julian Freeman almost became a college dropout last week.
âÄúI was 90 percent sure it was all over,âÄù he said.
âÄúI was in some deep trouble.âÄù
But Freeman is not unfamiliar with trouble. The youth studies senior said he got into plenty of it as a Madison, Wis., kid who âÄúdidnâÄôt give a [expletive] about high schoolâÄù and had several run-ins with the law.
âÄúI got tired of running the streets and figured if IâÄôm going to be in an institution, IâÄôd rather it be the U rather than in prison,âÄù the College of Continuing Education student said.
After some time in a technical college in Wisconsin, Freeman thought he found a way out of the âÄúpure chaosâÄù when he was accepted into the University of Minnesota in 2009.
He was wrong.
Culture shock, financial issues and academic struggles have made his University experience a challenge.
âÄúMy life is still chaotic,âÄù he said. âÄúEvery other week I crash and burn.âÄù
For Freeman, it has been a long and complicated journey to get to this point in his education.
Despite his growth, Freeman said he has a long way to go after a recent visit to the bank that revealed his mounting debt from college loans has created a dismal financial future for him.
âÄúIâÄôm basically living check-to-check,âÄù he said. âÄúAnd IâÄôm getting tired of it.âÄù
As registration opens for his final semester at the University, Freeman said heâÄôs struggling to determine whether his financial sacrifices are worth the effort and has contemplated dropping out.
On Tuesday, Freeman met with his OneStop adviser. After the meeting he said he was eligible and planned to register for his final semester. Freeman said he kept coming back to school because of the friends and professors whoâÄôd encouraged him to get to this point.
Second chances
Phil Binns walked away from his opportunity to attend the University of Minnesota six years ago. During parent-teacher conferences at North Community High School, Binns passed by an information booth without looking.
Binns, then a freshman, could have kept walking, but a womanâÄôs voice called him and his mother back.
The woman told them about the Upward Bound Program, which provides college preparation and support for low-income or potential first-generation university students. BinnsâÄô mom was eager to hear more, but he just wanted to go home and watch TV.
After Binns missed the deadline to apply for the program, the woman called to offer him a second chance to apply. A few days later, she knocked on his door to walk him through the application from his living room couch.
âÄúNot a lot of black men get somebody like that their life,âÄù the sophomore said. âÄúOpportunities donâÄôt knock twice, but I guess they did for me.âÄù
Two years ago, the same woman guided him through another application âÄî the one that earned him admission to the University.
Binns said he loves to hear about other students who have mentors because of the impact mentors have had on him.
His experience as a mentee through the Upward Bound program has inspired him to help kids like him. He said he was excited to learn that he will be able to reach out to the incoming class of freshmen as a Welcome Week leader this summer.
As a youth studies major, Binns works as a teacherâÄôs assistant in an elementary school. In his professional work, he hopes to help erase signs of the achievement gap for the next generation of young black students, he said.
âÄúI was on field trip on the bus with the kids and they were asking me what itâÄôs like in college,âÄù he said. âÄúI tried to send them the right message so [they] not only can get here one day, but succeed.âÄù