A black graduate asks: Why do so few make it?

Jamaal Abdul-alim earned a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Jamaal Abdul-AlimHe returned, writing for the Washington Monthly, to ask why only 19 percent of black students complete a degree in six years, half the rate for the university as a whole. Why did he make it when so many fail?

UWM admits more than 90 percent of applicants, but its graduation rates are low compared to other nonselective universities, he writes. Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which admits 80 percent of students, graduates 50 percent of black students within six years.  Nationally, the black graduation rate is 31.2 percent.

Abdul-alim had one huge advantage over most of his black classmates: “strong familial and financial support.”

 My father . . . worked for Wisconsin Bell . . . From the earliest days of my childhood, I remember my father talking about the need for me to “go further” than he did educationally, how he enrolled in a technical college once but was distracted by wanting to hang out with his buddies in a pool hall in his hometown.

My mother, a woman of Polish descent from Milwaukee’s South Side, investigated insurance claims for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She was always taking me on trips to museums and the like and exposed me to a wide variety of books, such as Manchild in the Promised Land, which she required her only son to read once he started to veer toward trouble in school and in the streets. I had my own desk and shelves full of books for as far back as I can remember. My parents earned enough to invest in a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica for me back when encyclopedia salesmen still went door to door.

Still, his predominantly black high school didn’t demand much of students. He transferred to a predominantly white high school to get a better education, but “couldn’t hack” the rigor and transferred back.

At UWM, he barely passed remedial algebra, then failed college-level algebra three times, before passing an intensive summer course at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC).

Math is a significant barrier to black students at UWM, Abdul-alim found. He met a young newspaper reporter who completed a journalism degree — except for the math requirement. While she tries to pass math, she’s starting to make payments on $34,000 in student loan debt.

Weak academic preparation isn’t the only problem, black students told Abdul-alim. Some said they lacked focus, discipline and career goals.

Lester Kern Jr., a dreadlocked 23-year-old psychology major, started in spring of 2008 but was still a junior five years later. “I was partying too much for my first two semesters,” Kern said. “The biggest factor for why I didn’t do well is I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I figured there was no big goal I was working toward so I felt if I messed up, no big deal.”

Abdul-alim decided in high school that he wanted to be a journalist. He worked part-time for the Milwaukee Sentinel, whose editor said he wouldn’t hire him full-time without a bachelor’s degree.

He meets Nick Robinson, a black graduate who’s an architect. The son of an engineer and a court reporter he had “a very strong intellectual base” that others lack, he said. “They don’t understand that concept of, if you want something go get it. They think it’s some mystery. Like it has to work out in the universe. No, you put it in the universe.”

It’s not clear why UWM’s black graduation rate is so much lower than at other nonselective universities. The university is working on improving remedial math, writes Abdul-alim. Academic advising for black students (aka “segregated” advising) has moved to the center of campus. But nobody’s gone to Bowling Green to see how they do it.

About Joanne


  1. My kids high-performing high schools’ (4, in 3 states) guidance departments were useless at best and often an actual hindrance, as far as academics were concerned. All of their interest was in the social/emotional areas. They were uninformed/misinformed about (1) academic course selection/level/sequence, (2) expectations of elite colleges, (3) SAT/SAT II /AP testing and (4) selection of college/major matched to student performance and interest. Fortunately, most parents were much better informed and the parent/student grapevine was extensive. Vocational programs weren’t even on their radar. Given that, one can only imagine what “help” kids in low-SES schools are receiving.

    • Good point. Kids from ‘non-college’ families actually think the counselors give good information. A friend’s daughter was told that she should avoid taking APs because she might mess up her perfect GPA. (She had the highest PSAT score in school history – as a freshman.) When, really, she’s better off taking the hardest classes she can.

      Luckily, her mom knew not to trust guidance counselors.

      • When the counselors met with the incoming freshmen, my eldest’s class was told never to take more than one honors class; that no one did so! This was at a school where anyone taking any academic class at less than honors level was locked out of the top 25% and the top kids took as many APs as they could schedule, after the honors prereqs! Nine years later, they were all still singing the same lie to my youngest son’s class. This was the same crowd that said the SAT II level II math didn’t need to be taken by anyone going on to calc – apparently unaware that the AP results wouldn’t be available until well after graduation.Sigh

        • It would be so much easier if they just said, “It depends where you want to go to college. Why don’t you contact some admissions officers and see what you need to do?”

          • DM: It would be easier. So easy that they’d be out of a job.

            It’s so much easier to get info (a new problem perhaps) on all this; if our students were really the awesome, independent critical thinkers the Edstablishment touts, the need for counseling and guidance really should be less.

            I have had occasion where students who wanted to major in X came to me and asked me to basically outline their application essays. My response invariably – I’m happy to help review and strengthen – but shouldn’t the vision be coming from YOU?

  2. I forgot to add that I thought the comment about needing to go out and make things happen, rather than waiting for something to happen was right on the money. It’s very true even for advantaged kids. Success usually isn’t random; the kids who succeed are usually the ones who seek out help if they need it, opportunities to extend their knowledge/skills and make useful contacts with faculty, staff and fellow students. I read an excellent article which specifically discussed the common faculty expectations (out-of-class prep, class attendance, class behavior, expectation that academics should a higher priority than family/social issues, how and when to use campus resources etc) which are usually assumed and never stated. The article said those are frequent stumbling blocks for first-generation college students. One student commented that he essentially had to divorce himself from family and neighborhood during the school terms and internship/college-related jobs – because they kept preventing him from fully committing to college.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    The morons at the Seattle School Board–but I repeat myself–once listed future time orientation as characteristic of the white bourgeois culture and thus racist.
    IOW, don’t do it. Okay. So now we see the result.

    • Elizabeth says:

      But Richard, at least you can say that SPS does not discriminate – it offers a lousy education for all children- black, white, etc. equally!

    • It is! You don’t get it at all, do you? Some people just live “in the now”. It’s their culture. And you’d punish them for that?

      Speaking of which, which whites and Asians invariably do better at Math than African-Americans, then there clearly is something wrong with the curriculum, the way the material is presented, the word problems chosen, etc. If you don’t think Math can be racist and segregationist, then you’re just kidding yourself.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Spunk. On the possibility you’re not being sarcastic:
        I’m not punishing anybody. Circumstances and the real world are doing to people who live in the now what would inevitably happen to people who live in the now.
        Saying it’s their culture means…see preceding paragraph.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        If some people “live in the now” because “it’s their culture,” they are going to be less successful pretty much anywhere.

        That is not a moral judgment on their culture any more than it is a moral judgment to say that someone who jumps off a 50 foot cliff is going to hurt themselves. Nor is the broken leg (or worse) that results a punishment by any conscious entity.

      • People are welcome to “live in the now”. Frankly, I imagine it’s very calming and happy. But please, when something happens in some later now because they didn’t (refused to?) plan – pregnancy, sickness, old age, I wish they’d keep their hands out of my wallet. See, I just happen to have money in this now because in an earlier now I said; dang, something bad might happen, I better put a bit of this away; just in case.

        Sheds new light on the ant and the grasshopper thing; or the Sons of Martha.

  4. Ann in L.A. says:

    This article above also ties in with this one which ran over the weekend in the LA Times:

    South L.A. student finds a different world at Cal

    In the link is a story of a kid who got great marks in high school, graduated second in his class, but can’t hack the writing at Berkley.

    The one thing obviously left out of both stories is ACT or SAT scores. My guess is that neither student had test scores which showed a readiness for college-level work. School grades can be shaded by many factors: teacher preferences, grading on a curve, etc. Not many teachers would have the guts to give their best student a C, because that’s what their grade would be if graded objectively.

    In the Milwaukee story, the kid was a C student in a bad high school. He never would have been considered for college in an earlier era.

    (oddly, I’m from Milwaukee, now living in L.A.)

  5. Bostonian says:

    If you controlled for SAT and ACT scores, much of the graduation rate gap between whites and blacks would disappear, since blacks have lower scores on average. Don’t make the gap more complicated than it is.

    • Expanding upon Bostonian’s comments, the graduation rates are a direct consequence of cognitive abilities as evidenced by SAT score distribution, and slightly less by high school GPA. Someone who has time can look through the SAT score distribution and relate to graduation rate (distribution).

    • Well that was about as helpful as pointing out that if you control for the rising of the sun there’s hardly any difference between day and night.

      Care to speculate on the reasons for the need to control for SAT and ACT scores in order to make the graduation rate gap disappear?

  6. Since, because of Affirmative Action, blacks admitted to higher education are on average less qualified for academics than admissions from other racial/ethnic groups they don’t do as well. This is exactly what one
    would expect given the use of lower admission standards for blacks.
    If the same admission standards were applied to blacks as are applied to whites the number of blacks admitted to colleges would decline substantially but the success of those admitted would then probably be about the same as whites.

    • Ann in L.A. says:

      ACT/SAT’s have already been shown to be good predictors of college achievement.

      Google results: SAT’s and College Achievement

    • Mark Roulo says:

      His question is not “why do blacks graduate at a lower rate than whites?” His question is “why is UWM’s black graduation rate (and even non-black graduation rate) so low compared to other, seemingly comparable, institutions.”


      Relevant bits from his article:

      The transcripts represent a rare behind-the-scenes look at some of the circumstances behind the abysmal graduation rate for black students at UWM: only 19 percent graduate within six years. (The university’s overall graduation rate isn’t much better, at 40 percent.) The point of my return visit this past spring was to answer this question: Why are those numbers so low?

      One answer, which I heard early and often, is that UWM is a nonselective, “access” institution: more than 90 percent of those who apply are admitted, which means that many incoming students may not be adequately prepared for the demands of college. “We need to create equal opportunity for everybody,” said Johannes Britz, the university’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “But we cannot guarantee that if we create an opportunity they will be successful.”

      But UWM’s graduation rates are not only low in absolute terms, they’re low even compared to other nonselective, access institutions. Bowling Green State University in Ohio, for instance, is almost as open access as UWM (admissions rate: 80.1 percent). But it has a six-year graduation rate of 50.1 percent for black students, compared to 19 percent at UWM. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 31.2 percent of black students graduate within six years from other four-year institutions with similar admissions rates—a dismal showing that’s still 12 percentage points higher than it is at UWM.

      His question is a good one.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Played lax against Bowling Green almost exactly half a century ago. They used their football helmets, which weren’t near as sexy as the lax helmets.
        The article says BG is “almost” as open (unselective) as UWM. By Occam’s Razor, that means the “almost” folks at UWM are where it’s at, as we used to say.

        Roger Sweeny. Pointing out an inevitability, like the result of hitting the ground from five hundred feet up, is characterized as recommending punishment by the kind-hearted (just ask them) brain dead.

        Discovered that Sons of Martha is sometimes used as the text in the Calling of Engineers to the Order of The Iron Ring.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          From http://collegeapps.about.com, the ACT scores for the two schools (25th/75th percentile) are basically the same:

          Composite (UW-M): 19/24
          Composite (BG): 19/24

          English (UW-M): 18/24
          English (BG): 18/24

          Math (UW-M): 18/25
          Math (BG): 18/24

          Graduation rates, however are:

          UW-M (overall/black): 40/19
          BG (overall/black): 58/50

          This is quite a difference. Does UM-W get blacks with much lower ACT scores than BG? If so, shouldn’t the *white* ACT scores at UM-W be higher, and thus the graduation rates higher, too?