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​Why white students are 250% more likely to graduate than Black students at public universities

Remedial education, financial challenges and even just a jarring campus culture can stymie students

When Diamante Hare stepped onto Northeastern Illinois University’s campus in Chicago for the first time in 2018, he was gambling with thousands of dollars of grants, scholarships and loans — and his future. As gambling tends to go, the odds were against him.

Away from his predominantly Black, West Chicago neighborhood for the first time, Hare felt uncomfortable. He was unsure what to expect or how he would fit in. There were other Black students on campus, but of the 20 Black freshmen he remembers becoming friendly with at the start of that year, he said 17 didn’t make it past the first semester.

Hare, now a senior, is on track to graduate without having transferred, withdrawn temporarily or gone part-time. That’s unusual. At Northeastern Illinois, only 11 percent of Black students graduated within six years in 2019. Even fewer graduated within four, as Hare plans to do.

White students at Northeastern Illinois University are five times more likely to graduate than Black students and more than three times more likely to graduate than Latino students, according to federal data.

The problem is pervasive: Nationally, white students at public colleges are two and a half times more likely to graduate than Black students, and 60 percent more likely to graduate than Latino students.

In some states, the graduation rate gaps are particularly acute: At every four-year public college in Illinois and Missouri with data available, for example, there was a gap of at least 14 percentage points between white and Black students in 2019.

The state of Illinois has the sharpest disparities between Black and white students and ranks fourth worst for the gap between Latino and white students.

A range of reasons contribute to these gaps. Financial pressure — whether sheer lack of funds or the need to hold down a paying job while in college — is a primary reason. Spending excessive time in remedial classes that carry no college credit but drain financial aid is another. Many Black and Latino students may also drop out because they feel excluded or isolated.

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Northeastern Illinois has roughly 5,600 undergraduates, of whom 39 percent are Hispanic, 27 percent are white and 11 percent are Black. Over half of all students receive Pell Grants, the federal aid for low-income families. Many students are over age 25; many attend part-time. Working long hours outside of school often thwarts progress toward graduation.

“We know that these obstacles exist, and we haven’t addressed them,” said Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher education policy, practice and research at the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on helping students of color and low-income students.

If colleges are willing to enroll a diverse mix of students, he said, they should be willing to invest in the necessary support services to help those students graduate. Some colleges, including Northeastern Illinois, are working to fix that gap with new programs and scholarships.

Feliza Ortiz-Licon, chief policy and advocacy officer at Latinos for Education, a nonprofit group, said that administrators and educators who want to address racial disparities in college completion need to look at the entire system and take responsibility for their part in it.

“To an extent, yes, hold K-12 accountable, but now they’re your students. What are you going to do?” Ortiz-Licon said. “You can’t continue focusing on K-12 and what they didn’t do.”

The financial challenges

For senior Edgar Martinez, 28, for example, even financial aid is out of reach; he moved to the United States as a teenager and is undocumented. So he’s working to pay for college, juggling shifts at a grocery store and waiting tables. He said Northeastern Illinois would have seemed more welcoming to him if it had offered more flexible class times.

Francisco X. Gaytán, Northeastern Illinois’ former associate provost for student success and retention, said the university sees itself as a “last chance university.” With an acceptance rate of roughly 60 percent for first-time students and more than 70 percent for transfers, he says it accepts people who are unlikely to be accepted at other four-year institutions.

“We give students that chance that other schools won’t give them,” said Gaytán, who this fall took a job at North Park University, another Chicago college. “But the chance really just meant ‘We’ll let you in the door.’”

Once students arrive, Gaytán said, they need support and advice, often to counter their parents, who may rationalize that if a student is in class for only 15 hours a week, he or she should be able to work during the remaining hours.

“That is the exact thing you should not do, but unless I have an orientation that has families and students and explains that, Latino families will say, ‘No, I don’t want my child to be lazy, I want them to go work,’” Gaytán said. “And your parents say, ‘What are you doing with your time? Why are you wasting so much time?’”

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For Latino students, especially first-generation college-goers, “It’s not just ‘échale ganas,’ it’s not just ‘si, se puede,’” he said, using the Spanish phrases for “Go for it” and “Yes, you can.”

Difficulty catching up and feeling included

Other students confront the challenge of having had inadequate high school preparation. They must then take remedial classes in math or English before they can move into a college-level course. Remedial classes cost time and money but carry no credits, meaning that students who enroll in them take longer to graduate and consume more of their financial aid eligibility.

Alexis Smith, a senior majoring in communications, began taking remedial courses at a nearby community college in January 2015, and eventually finished her associate degree before transferring to Northeastern Illinois in January 2019.

As a Black woman with a physical disability, Smith struggled to find community on campus. She uses a wheelchair, and said she’s been disappointed not to find any affinity groups for students like her. She said she tried to join a sorority on campus but was turned down.

“What is it about me?” Smith said she asks herself. “Is it because I’m Black and most of the girls in the sorority are either white or Hispanic? Or does it not have anything to do with race at all? Is it because I have a disability? I’ve never seen a woman a part of a sorority with a disability before. Do they feel like I look too different?”

Ortiz-Licon said it’s often assumed that students will easily adapt to their new environments, but that’s not always true.

In some cases, Black and Latino students feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide for their families, either financially or with tasks like child care for younger siblings, she said —  which professors may not see as valid reasons for assignment extensions.

The misunderstandings and feelings of discomfort often extend beyond the classroom. Ortiz-Licon said she worked with one Latino student who joined the international club on his campus because, “As a first-generation, working-class, Mexican American undergrad student, he felt like an international student.”

That student was invited to a social gathering that asked him to bring ingredients to contribute to a charcuterie board, she said.

“He had no idea what the host was talking about, so he opted out,” Ortiz-Licon said.

It’s mostly not just one obstacle or one incident that makes a student decide to leave school, researchers and educators say. Racial red-lining can lead to inadequate housing that leaves students with no quiet space to study; students may arrive on campus from a high school where they were made to feel inferior; the wealth gap, despite equal education, can mean limited financial help. This cascade of circumstances can leave students feeling hopeless about their ability to graduate.

Closing the gap

Rutgers University-Newark, part of New Jersey’s state university, has raised its graduation rates for Black students well above the national average. Recognizing that students often hesitate to seek help, counselors there set up “listening tables” at common gathering points on campus. Doctors and counselors were also posted in academic building lobbies, student lounges and cafeterias to offer counseling and wellness advice.

At Old Dominion University, a public college in Virginia, about one-third of the students are Black, and they graduate at about the same rate as white students. In addition to clubs such as the Ebony Impact Gospel Choir, an association for Black engineering students and Brother 2 Brother for Black and Latino male students, there is a coalition of Black faculty and staff that offers mentoring and advising to Black students and a similar coalition to help Latino students. 

Along with orientations and admission seminars open to all students, there is also an institute for leadership development specifically for Black and Latino students.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to help students across the finish line,” said Don Stansberry, vice president of student enrollment and engagement at Old Dominion. “We know that doesn’t happen automatically. We know that it’s a challenge to ask for help when you need it, and we know we have to take extra measures to encourage students to do that.”

Luvia Moreno, assistant dean and director of undocumented student resources at Northeastern Illinois, added that many incoming students don’t have the support systems they had in high school. “That’s another barrier right there,” she said. “Unless you have someone who can guide you through that process, it’s very hard to get into higher ed and navigate the system.”

To address this, Northeastern Illinois has been developing programs to help Black and Latino students make the adjustment to college.

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Proyecto Pa’Lante is a program designed to help Latino students and students who are interested in learning more about Latino cultures during their first two years. It gives them access to bilingual and bicultural advising and mentoring; membership also makes them eligible for a program-specific scholarship.

The school’s Project Success was designed specifically to recruit and retain African American students. Students accepted to the program receive a merit scholarship, take a special academic skill-building and transition course and get special advising to help them succeed.

Project Success students also get priority consideration for the university’s summer transition programs, for students who want to develop a stronger foundation in specific academic subjects or get an early taste of college.

“We’re trying to figure out how to better streamline those services, how to better communicate those services to students, to make sure that they are making use of those services and that we are better able to monitor how the students are doing so that we can increase their retention and their graduation,” Moreno said.

Better communication might have helped Hare and his freshman-year friends, but he said he wasn’t aware of any such programs, and thus didn’t take part in any. He did get help from a special adviser: his older brother, Marvelas Hare, who works as a college counselor and who graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2012.

Marvelas Hare’s advice from afar wasn’t helping enough, so he came to campus to visit, Diamante said, “because I didn’t want to speak to anybody. He had to come up to the school and make me, like actually force me, to speak to everybody that I come across, and especially the Black faculty. He made me introduce myself and tell them what I want to be in life and tell them what I want to major in.”

After that, Hare felt more comfortable on campus, saying hi and making conversation. He said this led him to strong mentors and help in applying for extra scholarships that eased the financial burden of college. He made friends and started a basketball club that was active until the pandemic disrupted his sophomore year.

This June, while working part time stocking shelves at a Walmart in south Chicago and taking two summer classes, Hare got an on-campus job with the summer transition program. He worked directly with the Project Success cohort — younger Black students making the same gamble he’d made when he enrolled in 2018.

The odds for Hare now appear good. He expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a degree in communications and media, and hopes to work his way into a career in sports communications.

He has continued to act as an all-around mentor to the summer transition students, even helping some find their classes during the first week of the semester and helping others coordinate rides to school when they needed them.

“I just wish that my first year that I had somebody to do that for me,” Hare said. “I didn’t want to speak to no one and I was uncomfortable — I didn’t know where to go. So that was one of my biggest reasons to help them, is to show them something that I never had.”

Camilla Forte contributed reporting to this story.

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This story about racial graduation gaps was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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In some cases, Black and Latino students feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide for their families, either financially or with tasks like child care for younger siblings, she said — which professors may not see as valid reasons for assignment extensions.

“We have an obligation and a responsibility to help students across the finish line. We know that doesn’t happen automatically.”

— Don Stansberry, vice president of student enrollment and engagement, Old Dominion University