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Grad rates vary by race

UM black students’ graduation rates remain below average

By Hassan Allawi
On April 9, 2013

While black students have the lowest graduation rate and the lowest GPA's among all races at the University of Memphis, some other universities have found solutions to the same problem.
According to the Education Trust, a non-profit student advocacy foundation, the 2010 six-year graduation rate for black students at the U of M was 24.7 percent, while it was 48.5 percent for Asians, 43.7 for whites and 38.5 for Latinos.
 While U of M's black students' graduation rate has dropped by 6.5 percent, whites have improved theirs by 6.7 percent, Latinos raised it by 5.17 percent and Asians lost half a percentage point but remained in the lead. Of the 109 research universities that have more than five percent black students in their student bodies, The U of M is in the bottom nine in graduating black students, according to the Education Trust.
 "What we looked at when we saw these numbers was something interesting-troubling and, for us, gives us a real direction about what the next steps are," said Thomas Nenon, the U of M vice provost of assessment, institutional research and reporting.
Nenon said statistics showed that 80 percent of students who discontinue their education at the U of M have a GPA of lower than 2.0.
"That indicates to us that academic success is the key to improving retention and graduation rates here," Nenon said.
He said that the University has historically focused its efforts on programs that benefit all students and that the University has undertaken many programs to improve graduation rates.
"Unfortunately, however, it's worked dramatically much better for students overall than it has for African-Americans, or first generation students, or low-income students," Nenon said.
James Murphy, a psychology professor at the U of M, said that academic success can be affected by psychological factors.
"As a University, we still have more role models who are white as compared to non-white. I can see that posing a problem," he said.
Murphy said that role models are important to student motivation, because they illustrate the tangible benefits of success and thus make those benefits seem more attainable. He said that not feeling a part of the University can hurt a lot of students because it makes the work seem harder.
"To improve the situation, we should be trying to make students feel more like campus is their home ... it's where they spend a lot of time, and it's where they get a sense of their identity" he said.
Underlying sociological and economic issues can also be a big predicament, according to sociology Professor Zandria Robison.  
"When you have to work to support the family, you have to take grandma to her doctor appointment and play all these roles, you can't focus on school. School will always come last," she said.
Robinson said that the lack of social support and "social capital" are factors that pull back black students.
"Across (all) races, to be successful in school - we know from research - students need a social support network of peers who are successful and motivated," she said.
Robinson says that faculty and staff's support to students can make up for a lot of the social support students miss, but "a lot of times universities and faculty do not communicate to students in ways that let them know that we are here for [their] success. We are not here to punish [them] or drive [them] insane."
Social capital is a subtle understanding of how to navigate settings such as financial aid, the library, etc., which many first-generation college students lack, Robinson said.
"Middle class students don't even think about these things," she said.
She also said that having African-American faculty is vital to improving the graduation rates of African-Americans.
"All the research shows that as the number of African-American faculty increases, African-American students' performance increases," she said. "The University of Memphis does not have the best track record in recruiting and retaining African-American faculty."
Robinson said that most African-American faculty who work at the University end up leaving the academic force, because they don't feel comfortable at the University.
"It's kind of like corporate America - there is a lot of racism, and it's difficult to navigate around that," she said.
At some other universities, however, a way out of these dilemmas has been found.
California State University has reduced the graduation gap between black students and other races on its 22 campuses with different percentages of success.
"We have a team on each campus, led by the provost and on some campuses co-chaired by the vice-president. Some campuses have done better than others in closing the achievement gap, but all campuses have improved their rates," said Ephraim P. Smith, executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the CSU system.
He said that their success could be attributed to student engagement, which was achieved through community service, internships, student-faculty research and other practices.
"We know that an engaged student persists at a higher rate than a non-engaged student," Smith said.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington raised its black students' graduation rates by more than 20 percent, almost closing the gap.
"Our success reflects our total institutional commitment to our students from the time they are prospective students until the time we celebrate their graduation," said Terrance Curran, associate provost for enrollment management.
Curran said their success was by-and-large a result of the efforts of African-American students themselves; "most importantly the perseverance of those students who are not only academically motivated, but also presented a lot of hard work."
Curran says that challenges to student success are always present, and that one can never over-estimate the investments made to maintain students' academic success.
"We deserve to take a moment and be pleased with our success, but only one moment, because there will always be challenges to maintaining our success" he said.

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