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Graduation Figures in Black And White

Often times, it takes a village to raise young adults, too.

I thought about this twist on the ancient African proverb after reading reports about the abysmal graduation rates among students at Wayne State University and the staggering racial disparity therein.

But WSU stood out as having the widest graduation gap -- 34 percent -- between white and black students attending public universities.

Of the 15,478 WSU students who were enrolled in fall 2007, an average of 9.5 percent of black students graduated after six years between 2006-2008, the report showed. That compares to 43.5 percent of white students who earned a diploma, trailing behind the national average of 56 percent.

Obviously, the report, done by Education Trust, is an indictment of nearly every school system that has produced these students — and I'm not just talking here about the black pupils either. You have to be downright delusional to find any level of satisfaction in the 43.5 percent graduation for white students. (More on See pictures of Detroit schoolchildren)

But there's no getting around what the race data suggests. Even young black Detroiters who manage to make it out of high school and into one of the city's big universities are far less likely to earn the coveted college degrees that can mark the difference between a lifetime of poverty and middle-class comfort. (Hispanics also lag far behind their white counterparts.)

Oh yes, I'm perturbed at all the usual suspects, of course, from the dysfunctional public schools to the under-demanding parents who make some kids think that a high-school diploma represents the pinnacle of educational achievement. But as a graduate of WSU, I also need to ask this: How has my alma mater let it get this bad?

For years now, the school has been steadily expanding, building new dormitories, expanding academic programs and generally doing a pretty good job of raking in cash and profile. Meanwhile, it seems to have made peace with the steady churn among its student body, cultivating something approaching a cottage industry with all the tuition dollars it takes from students who don't have the wherewithal to fulfill the school's degree requirements. (More on See a TIME special on how Detroit lost its way)

And this churn isn't anything new. Even when I was a student at Wayne State more than 20 years ago, many of my classes were often filled with people -- black and white -- whom I knew weren't ready for the rigors of college. They thought like David Murray and wrote like Otis Mathis. And it wasn't until they failed a class that they realized just how unready they'd been. And of course, they'd all drop out within a semester or two and be replaced by yet another crop of ill-prepared freshmen. Rinse, repeat. (BTW, Wayne's not alone in facing graduation disparities, as the report also cited schools such as Lawrence Tech, U of D Mercy and Michigan State as confronting the same problems.)

Now, the argument is often heard that if these students can't keep up, they need to be jettisoned anyway. But I don't buy that, at least not totally. Yes, some kids may be in over their heads, but when a university is graduating 9.5 percent of one of the most populous segments of its student body, when 43.5 percent become the "high end" of the graduation spectrum, the school has an obligation to re-examine itself, too, I think. And so does the city, region and state.

As I said, it takes a village...

Yes, there are  any number of reasons why the graduation rates are so alarming. WSU is a commuter school largely, and college students who commute traditionally don't do as well as students living on campus. Further, many of WSU's students come from poor and working-class families and often have to scrape together any combination of grants, loans, scholarships and their own cash to get by from semester to semester. (More on Read about an upcoming television reality show on Detroit schools)

But for decades WSU made its bones educating these kinds of students. It was, and still is, a place that has helped ensure that children who weren't the scions of privilege could compete with, say, the U of M grads of the world. It's also been a standard bearer for diversity, boasting for example a black student body that's larger than the entire student populations of many famed Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Now, though, I'm hearing people argue that, somewhere along the way, WSU forgot about that part of its mission, the part that helped it stand out as a beacon for so many young people hoping to rise above their blue-collar beginnings.
"It's inexcusable," said Frank Koscielski, a WSU academic adviser and recruiter. "Wayne State could be and should be the finest urban commuter university in the country. Unfortunately, it has had poor top administrators who wanted to make the university something that it isn't."

In Detroit everything from poor public transit to the dire employment situation has some part to play in why so many young people seem unable to finish college. And as I mentioned, I certainly don't discount the impact of besieged homes, troubled neighborhoods, sorry schools and broken families on the dismal graduation numbers either. (More on See pictures of Detroit's beautiful, horrible decline)

But WSU has long prided itself on raising its students up rather than lowering its standards. And that's the way I think it should be. College should be an opportunity for everyone, not just another "survival of the fittest" filter. Our country is struggling now largely because so many segments of its population -- from millions of blacks and Hispanics to millions of poor whites — have been cast aside, ignored and otherwise denied legitimate chances to participate.

A college degree represents the best avenue to these opportunities for anyone. And Wayne State has a long history of helping to grade the road to upward mobility for an array of students from a variety of backgrounds. This shouldn't be lost amid the school's desires to grow and expand.

Even as WSU moves forward, I hope that the school, and all of the other stakeholders around here who depend on the students places like Wayne State turn out, can find a way to get back to the mission that helped make it great. We can't afford for it not to.

See more from TIME's yearlong look at Detroit

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