One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

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

  • Print
  • Comment
Comments (14)
Post a Comment »
  • 1

    This may well be the most important Blog in the series.

    The Ed Schools are to blame along with the textbook publishers.

    Modern Math, has destroyed how many generations now?

    More on this later.

  • 2

    Once upon a time teachers went to Normals... colleges that would grant the right to teach in the schoolhouses.

    My favorite professor at the U of M did that and taught in a one room school, all grades. I think that there was some mention that the older students helped the younger ones.

    Those were simple, direct times.

    Now we have managed to complexify things to an unimaginable degree. Jane Jacobs wrote about the fact that education no longer was interested in grounding and teaching, they became interested in certifying. We are now a certified society... some would use that sarcastically.

    Gulliver, in his travels got to Laputa and then went to see the grand academy of Lagado. Interesting goings on there and it was no wonder why he needed the relief of living with the Houyhnhnm.

    Sometimes I think that we need that too for the Academy was full of nutcase professors.

    I went to my daughters math teacher and commented that she should be drilling the kids on their math facts. Her answer was, "Why nooo Mr. Deekins, that is your responsibility!"

    I cried. Not only for her but also for the children of the poor parents who could never have fulfilled on such an assumed obligation.

    It took Kumon and an electric scooter to get that ironed out. But Kumon only works with daily involvement of a mentor. Now that can be accomplished with a parent or a Math Scout system with older scouts helping the younger ones.

    Dr. Jenkins, the new Principal at ML King, invited me into a parent/student meeting of freshmen who did not know their basic math facts and how to remedy the situation. I am convinced that in most cases the situation was not remedied.

    Now who is at fault?

    Why it's the Ed Schools at the various universities that decided that rote memory was useless.

    Wasn't that a great philosophical decision?


  • 3

    BTW, I once went to pick up Megan and she told me to wait and she reached down into her book bag and pulled out a Math test.... The teacher had written "WOW!" in the top corner of a 500 question test. First done too.


  • 4

    I think that it's the grade school teachers who have been failing.

    They have not properly laid the foundation.

    With a shaky foundation, you got problems in every field.


  • 5

    In response to “Graduation Figures in Black and White,” we agree it takes a village to raise a child. We are also disappointed by graduation figures that demonstrate the difficulty we have in helping some students earn a college degree. While this has been portrayed as a racial issue, it is really an issue about academic preparedness and financial means.

    As an urban, public university, Wayne State has a responsibility to provide students who have the will and the aptitude, but who perhaps have not had the benefit of an excellent preparatory education or the privilege of economic security, the opportunity to better themselves by studying at a premier research institution. We recognize that many of these students will struggle, but those who succeed will have earned a chance to become successful, productive citizens.

    Many comparable universities will not admit these students. We do. We also recognize that these students will need far more academic support and personal encouragement. We provide that support and encouragement with a number of special programs that include learning communities, in which students can study outside the classroom with professors and peers. Our Emerging Scholars program focuses on raising the math competence of new students. The Alternative Pathways to Excellence program is a collaboration with community colleges to improve students' readiness to attend a four-year university.

    These and similar programs were implemented several years ago and have shown remarkable results in keeping students, particularly African American students, enrolled and on a path toward success at Wayne State. It is reasonable to assume these improvements in student retention will result in better graduation rates in the future, and we will be monitoring this closely. We are also looking at other programs that we anticipate will show positive results.

    Wayne State University is a willing part of the village it takes to raise a child, and student success is paramount for us. We don't take this responsibility lightly.

    Phyllis Vroom,

    Acting President and Dean of the School of Social Work,
    Wayne State University

  • 6

    After reading the excuses offered by Phyllis it is apparent she does not have a clue about racism nor how it has rendered WSU impotent in educating Black students!!

    Instead of having the intellectual courage and integrity to acknowledge the impact of racism on the graduation rates she instead operates in denial and deflection.

    The lack of ACADEMIC PREPARDNESS and FINACIAL MEANS in Black venues are the results and outcomes of RACISM in Black urban venues..WHAT part of this reality is hard for you to digest PHYLLIS??

    It is quite apparent your programs (Emerging Scholars, Alternative Pathways to Excellence) are failing these students and simply do not work!

    Yet instead of ackowledgement of this truth Phyllis insteads makes excuses and offers up some shallow babble..

    One good outcome of this chatter is now I know who at WSU is one of many who are not measuring up...Thanks for that Phyllis..

  • 7


    FYI- recent article on point with your post:

    College Dropout Factories by Ben Miller and Phuong Ly | Washington Monthly

    "Take North Carolina Central University, which enrolls 8,500 students. About 85 percent of students at both schools are black. NCCU's median SAT score is 840, the approximate equivalent of about 17 on the ACT, even lower than Chicago State's average ACT of 18. The difference, however, is that NCCU tries to work with the students it has. The result: while Chicago State graduates about 13 percent of its students, NCCU graduates about 50 percent.
    "We have the philosophy that if we admit the students into this institution we have a great responsibility in ensuring their success," says Bernice Duffy Johnson, dean of the school's University College, which focuses on supporting students during their first two years."

  • 8

    I understand that MSU has a program to bring students up to speed in their first 2 years.

    Problem is the Grade schools fail everyone, not just the blacks.

    Gone are penmanship, sentence diagramming, vigorous courses in punctuation and spelling, treatises on morality and doing the right thing, great historical lessons.

    And then there are the High schools with their outrageous texts and a complete mess of courses that try and blend and disintegrate info. No more Plane and Solid Geometry, no more proofs, no more Trig no more geography.

    It's all a huge mess of mixed up stuff in way overdone graphics and sidebars and underlines and crap.

    Did I, nor anyone for that matter, really need to see a picture of the guy who wrote the math text with his long, curly blond tresses and Levi's?

    I don't think so.

    Discrete subject areas are long gone. And it's all just a mixed up mess and a wonder that some of the kids really get through it.


  • 9


    It is not the end of the world truth is even during your generation failure existed as a matter of fact one could reason that the myth of how superior education was is just a myth

    Educated people created poverty, depressions, world wars, segregation, decadence , inhumanity..Educated people have always been more lethal, destructive, polluters than the so called masses..

    So B please spare me the lecture on the good ole days...Please....

  • 10

    One other note in this same report ( please use link provided by DD) there is a lot of discussion and data which argues that universities CAN make a difference despite race and the lack of preparedness and the reality of poverty and the bigotry of low expectations and the hopelessness of raw inequity which is a tragic hallmark of many ruban venues in our nation...

  • 11

    Which link are you focusing upon?

    Some comments are exacerbating.


  • 12

    Proper Education always makes a difference.

    So when are we going to see wood shop, metal shop, trigonometry, and drafting returned to the school settings?

    There has been way too much baffle-gab and gobbledygook speak in the educational system.

    Some of us have heard the distinction N-Smart/N-Dumb and now they are going to foist the N-Spire upon the kids.

    How dumb can you get?


  • 13

    Reblogged this on ashajswift.

  • 14

    [...] since we all love statistics, I want all my fellow NFL Lions fans to check out detroit.blogs.time and tell me what you think about[...]

Add Your Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.
The Detroit Blog Daily E-mail

Get e-mail updates from TIME's The Detroit Blog in your inbox and never miss a day.

More News from Our Partners

Quotes of the Day »

NICHOLAS FISHER, expert at Stony Brook University in New York who took part in a study which found that bluefin tuna contaminated with radiation believed to be from Fukushima Daiichi were present off the coast of California just five months after the nuclear meltdown.