Graduating While Black: graduation and retention rates

Aug 10, 2021 | Spotlight

By Erian Bradley

In the fall of 2012, Camille Williams walked onto Western Kentucky’s campus anxious about the future that was ahead of her. There were buildings all around her with cars in the surrounding parking lots, and incoming freshmen waiting in the lobby as her family waited outside to grab her things. She said she was ready to start her new journey as a college student. As she entered Hugh Poland Hall, she said she was intimated by the many students around her.

“The atmosphere was so different from high school, I was really about to be on my own,” said Williams. “I was so used to having my mom and sister around, and the only person I had was my best friend Kristin.”

Williams said she didn’t prepare herself as much as she should have. She said she wasn’t exceptional in high school and her ACT score was so low she didn’t expect to get into any college. She attended Fern Creek Traditional High school in Louisville, Kentucky.

Fern Creek High has a 20.7 percent college readiness score, calculated by the U.S News and World Report.

Williams said she went to Fern Creek because of her family background. Her mother and grandmother attended the same school, and she said the legacy has always been the goal.

“My high school didn’t prepare me for the three o’clock in the morning paper writing, or the insane studying all week,” Williams said. “The workload was overwhelming.”

Williams said she felt like being more involved and having more organizations for black students other than fraternities and sororities, would have made her become more comfortable with the campus. She said black students should have been represented more. There wasn’t much to do on campus at that time that she knew about, and it made it harder for her to stay focused and balance out her every day activities.

“I wasn’t as independent as I thought I was and it showed in my grades and the fact that I wasn’t adjusting,” she said.

Not only did she not see many black students represented on campus, but she didn’t see them behaving positively. She said she used to see black students smoking weed on the way to class and had their pants sagging, which she said made them look ridiculous on campus.

Williams dropped out in the Spring of 2013 because she wasn’t doing well in her classes and she said she felt she went too soon after high school. She lacked resilience and her family said she wouldn’t be able to continue at the rate she was going.

“I loved WKU, but I had some problems with the atmosphere and I had learned that I needed more time to prepare myself to come back,” Williams said.

Remaining a black statistic 

Nationally, 62.4 percent of college students graduate within six years, per an National Student Clearinghouse Research Center study from 2010. The research center found that black students at four-year universities are not graduating on time, and many aren’t graduating at all.  Further in that study, they found that for students who started in four-year institutions, black students had the lowest six-year graduate rate (35.3 percent). White students graduate 17 percent more than blacks at those four-year institutions.

Along with the low graduate rate, they calculated that out of a 59.9 percent enrollment from black student at a four-year institution, only 22.8 percent graduated at a four-year public institution, compared to the 34.4 percent of white students.

A New York University study by NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, analyzed students in Texas and found that over 60 percent of the racial gap in college completion rates was a repercussion from their high school education. They found that three characteristics —  individual, academic, and high school context factors — resulted in the variables for minority students versus white students. They further explained how most of the factors driving this achievement or completion gap were students attending high-poverty and high-minority high schools.

The Education Trust, a non-profit organization that helps close the opportunity gaps for students of color and low-income families, analyzed data from non-specialized four-year colleges and universities and found that the average institutional completion gap is considerably smaller, at 5.8 percent, than the national completion gap.

This study indicated that if institutions closed the gaps almost 12,000 more black students would graduate annually. The Education Trust organization stated that black students are severely underrepresented in institutions whose overall graduation rates are higher.

Closer to home

At WKU, this problem persists. Only 1 out of 5 black students  graduated in the 2016-2017 school year, compared to almost 60 percent of white student graduates as reported by WKU.  Despite the many attempts WKU has implemented to improve minority success on campus, graduation numbers aren’t improving.

The WKU Mission is to prepare students of all backgrounds to be productive, engaged, and socially responsible citizen-leaders of a global society, but if more minority students aren’t graduating it’s almost impossible for that mission to be efficiently completed. In 2016, WKU reported that the black retention rate was only 53.3 percent versus the 72.3 percent of white retention, meaning blacks are graduating almost 20 percent less than whites.

Ledeirdre Mumford, a senior at WKU, said she believes the retention rates are so low because black students struggle more than whites at four-year universities. She said most black students she knows come from either low-income or rich families. She said there is a huge gap between her friends; they’re either extremely poor or extremely rich, there’s no in-between and there’s more poor than rich.

“I feel like if you’ve came from a certain background where college wasn’t that important because of money, you won’t try as hard in high school and definitely not when you actually go to college,” said Mumford.

Attempts to improve retention and graduation for minorities

WKU’s retention and graduation rates for blacks continue to decline. In 2016, the graduation rate for blacks was only 20 percent, while in 2011 the percentages of black graduates was a little higher at roughly 29 percent, according to WKU. WKU has created programs for students who are in need of help to continue their education while at the university.

One of the most recent developments at WKU is the ISEC (The Intercultural Student Engagement) Center. The ISEC center was proposed to help with the recruitment, retention, and graduation of underrepresented students.

Martha Sales, executive director of the ISEC center, said the ISEC center as well as the other programs involved with the ISEC center have been influential for minority students and especially black students.

She said the ISEC center coordinates the ISEC academy, which helps students improve  their personal development, academic achievement, and support network and involvement on campus. The program is open to students of color (Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Native American, Multiracial) and/or those who are first-generation Pell eligible and have some need with their transition, persistence, and graduation from Western Kentucky University.

Sales is also the executive director for the TRIO programs on campus for college students and for high school students planning to attend universities. The five TRIO programs on campus is an educational talent search program, an upward bound program, veterans upward bound, student supports services, and an educational opportunity program. She said that TRIO programs are federally funded, and they are college access and success programs.

“All of our programs are pre-college programs other than Student Support Services, they are responsible for assisting students with graduating from their university,” she said.

Ty’Quaysha Moore, a freshman at WKU, said that Student Support Services has helped her succeed while being at WKU.

“Student Support Services allows me answers if I have any questions about financial aid, priority registration, and free scantrons,” she said. “I just have more support here than anywhere else.”

WKU also has the BEP (Best Expectations program) that teaches students the importance of positive study habits, time management, and provides academic support to help students be independent and successful learners.

Sarah Haught, assistant director for retention and student success, spoke highly of the program’s success despite the low retention rates at WKU. She said that the program is required for students who wind up on academic probation. She said the program is designed to help the student refocus on their schooling and change their mindset positively.

The program consists of one-hour study sessions once a week for 12 weeks each semester they remain on probation. She said students who are on probation for more than one semester are at higher risk of being dismissed from the university.

“It’s their way of letting the university know how serious they are about their education,” she said. “Each semester we get about hundreds of students, and it varies by semester.”

Haught also said that she believes first-generation students struggle more because of their lack of an understanding of being in college.

In 2017, 2,137 students were placed on Academic Probation (AP) or Academic Committee Approval (AA), according to WKU.  Of that 2,137, only 1,044 continued to attend WKU, and 531 of that population was black. The population of students enrolled in the BEP program was approximately 508, according to WKU.

It’s more than just academics

Dr. Selena Sanderfer, African diaspora and American history professor at WKU, said that many black students self-segregate themselves in classrooms. She said that it’s mostly black students that refuse to participate in her history classes.

“I don’t think they segregate on purpose but when there was a majority of one race in my class, they all would sit together,” she said. “That’s always interesting to me. I don’t know if it’s on purpose or just more comfortable for them.”

She said there’s no problems with black students speaking up in the Black history classes but in the American history classes black students still refrain from being productive, and speaking out on their opinions.

She said she tries to encourage black students by calling on them more in class and sometimes it can feel like they’re being picked on. She said when she gets on the topic of slavery and black issues, she almost only hears from white students.

“I don’t want to be like the white professors who look for black students and ask them how they feel about race issues, but it’s important for them to understand and speak on those issues,” she said.

Is this the right class?

One black student has realized that they’ve been the only black female/male or black person at all in the classes on the main campus. Cori Mack, 23, an undergraduate student at WKU, explained how surprised she was entering a class where some or none of the people in her classes looked like her.

“I felt out of place when I entered the classroom, and I try to sit in the front because that’s how my attention span works,” she said. “But by the time I got there all the white people filled those seats up. So, I had to sit in the back. This made me feel like I wasn’t there to learn but to sit in the back and be ignored.”

Cori said that she was the only black person in the class and it is constantly like this in most of her classes, which is awkward for her. She has since adjusted in her classes but still believes that blacks aren’t represented enough in main campus classes.

Mack said most of her classes are on South Campus. She had most courses over there because of some remedial courses she had to take, in order to take pre-requisites for the main campus.

“My high school didn’t prepare me for college at all,” she said. “Most of the time I didn’t study at all in high school, and I didn’t take a college readiness course of study.”

She said she always thought college would be like high school. Instead she was told to complete classes that didn’t benefit her in college success. She said she believes most schools are just worried about their graduation rates and getting you in and out of high school. She only applied for two schools and WKU was her first choice.

The Black American Dream or Not

Ladeirdre Mumford, 22, a black undergraduate student at WKU, said that she believes that the black American Dream is different than it is for whites, especially in college. She said she believes that high school is the stopping point for many of the people from her hometown, Hopkinsville, Kentucky.“Most of my family didn’t go to college because they didn’t feel like they had the potential to achieve well, and my dream has always been to make it here,” she said.

In most cases, the reasons why black students are not performing as well in colleges where whites are more prominent is because of the resources they didn’t have at home or high school, reported the Education Trust.

Shantel Pettway, 23, and a black 2017 graduate of WKU, said that she believes that a lack of high school support and home support for college is a huge reason why some black students don’t do well at college. She personally had some type of support from her high school but it wasn’t enough for her to understand how college worked.

“The lack of explanation and guidance from counselors and growing up in a home where parents or parent have little or no knowledge of FAFSA and college…it’s hard for a student to know exactly what’s best,” she said.

Pettway said her mother didn’t push her to college, she just always told her if she didn’t go to take up a trade. Ultimately, she helped her pick her major when entering college because she had no clue what she wanted to do, she just knew she was good at writing.

When she was applying to colleges she was on her own. She learned as she went, which she said she understands now isn’t good for any student to do. If it hadn’t been for her involvement in the yearbook in high school and going to WKU, she believes she wouldn’t have went to college, because out of state colleges offered her no scholarships and no other school in Kentucky accepted her.

“My mom went to college for two years but didn’t finish because she got pregnant,” she said. “She didn’t know much, my school made me apply but no one asked my interest or explained FAFSA or anything to me. The process was overwhelming.”

HBCU v. Predominately White Institutions (PWI)

The Education Trust found that while there are institution-level differences in these sectors, HBCUs  (Historically Black Colleges) have higher success rates for black students than non-HBCUs that serve similar students (i.e., freshman cohorts where 40 percent of students receive Pell Grants). They also found that the average institutional graduation rate for black students at HBCUs is 37.8 percent, versus the 32 percent at PWIs. They further discovered that four-year universities that are for-profit perform worse than non-profit organizations in helping black students to graduate. The study showed that less than 1 in 5 (18.8 percent) of the black students they accept into their universities make it to graduation day.

A student from Tennessee State University said that she loves her HBCU and she believes that she wouldn’t do as well at a primarily white institution because of the overall feeling she gets while attending games, events, and walking around on campus. She said she feels more at home attending a college where blacks are everywhere and not just in black sororities or fraternities on campus.

“The atmosphere at TSU and any HBCU is different from that of a PWI. There’s a sense of belonging and pride in culture that a Predominately White Institution can’t provide,” said Karube Oliver, a black sophomore at Tennessee State University. “It’s always comforting to see more people like you going through college and succeeding in the same things you are.”

Are Other Kentucky Schools in the Same Boat?

While WKU’s graduation rate is a low 45 percent overall, the University of Louisville’s is 53 percent, and the University of Kentucky’s is higher with 64 percent. 

Alexis Weaver, a black 2017 graduate of the University of Louisville, said her university had a mixture of all races and said most of the faces she saw on campus were black. She said she did well at U of L and had all the tools to succeed.

“I know people who have went to WKU, UK, and even K-State, and I know that U of L was the right choice for me academically and culturally,” she said.

Tori Churchill, a black 2017 graduate at Kentucky State, an HBCU said she loved her school despite the lack of funding. She said it made her work harder.

“Many black students I knew from high school try to steer away from HBCUs but I think as a black woman it’s important for me to hold onto my culture,” she said. “I attended a historically black high school, and it changed my life.”

Moving on after a failure

Camille Williams said she regrets not completing college. She said she believes that college is necessary in this world we live in now, and she said she wants to eventually go back. She said her family says that now it’s even more necessary to have multiple degrees because of all the competition.

In 2018, she has twin boys and got engaged last fall. She said all her energy goes toward her job and her boys because family is what matters right now. She hasn’t started school just yet because of her busy schedule but she works at CVS as a Pharmacy Technician full-time in the meantime.

She said WKU is a great school and she has multiple friends who graduated from WKU and are doing great because they had college to fall back on.

“I love my job, but it’s not my career just yet,” she said. “I want so much for myself and I know it’s gonna take some hard work to get there. I’m just still not ready.”

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