Jamaal Abdul-alim earned a journalism degree at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. He 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.