MU graduation gap between black, white students rooted in money, academics and climate

By Kasia Kovacs

COLUMBIA — Of the 5,702 full-time MU freshman who stepped onto Columbia’s campus in August 2008, fewer than half — 46 percent, according to a database from MU — graduated within four years.

Nationally, this is not unusual. Students transfer or drop out. They change majors once, twice or three times. They have double majors that take more time.

The six-year graduation rate is a better indicator of how many undergraduates complete their bachelor's degrees: 69 percent graduate within six years, as reported by Common Data Set released by MU

But when that number is broken down by race, it gets complicated. The six-year graduation rate for white students is 71 percent. For black students, that number drops to 57 percent — a difference of 14 points, according to numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics for the entering class of 2008.

This graduation gap is evident not only at MU. It’s a national issue, one with complex causes including not having enough money to pay for college, not enough peer and faculty support and a sense that they don't belong. 

First-generation students

One of the main reasons for the gap at MU is lack of financial resources, according to Donell Young, director of Academic Retention Services.

It’s true that nationally, African Americans are disproportionately affected by poverty. The 2014 poverty rate for black Americans was 26.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 10.1 percent of white Americans lived under the poverty line that year, or an income of $24,230 for a family of four.

Not only that, but 49 percent of black students were first-generation college students in 2007-08, according to a report from the Institute of Higher Education Policy

Loans and scholarships are available, but navigating the related paperwork — especially when the student is the first person in the family to go to college — can be a roadblock.

Ronecia Duke came to MU from her hometown of Springfield as a freshman in August 2009. After a yearlong break to be with her family when her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease then switching to online classes when she learned she was pregnant, Duke graduated in December with a bachelor's degree in sociology and communications. 

Duke was also a first-generation college student.

“If you don’t have any prior knowledge of the whole adventure of going to college and what it entails, you can kind of get overwhelmed, I guess,” she said. “You don’t have anyone in your immediate family going to your orientation, dealing with a course schedule, meeting with academic advisers, taking out loans.”

Beyond academics

Another contributor to the graduation gap between black and white undergraduates is lack of adequate academic preparation for college, Young and others said. Research published last year from the Center for Law and Social Policy found that high-minority schools often don't have access to the rigorous coursework that equips students for college. 

That’s part of the reason Jaylen Johnson, who came to MU to study business in 2014, decided to transfer to a community college in his home city of Chicago in January.

“I don’t think that my high school prepared me for a college as large as MU,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t as successful or focused as I should have been.”

But Darnell Cole, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies race and ethnicity in higher education, said it's more complicated than assigning responsibility to the school districts from which students come. 

“If you think about it, a lot of your white students don’t come from very good high schools, but they’re able to persist,” Cole said. “And one of the reasons they are able to do that is because they find enough peer support, faculty support and support among their campus services.”

Johnson’s reasons for leaving MU went beyond his feeling that he wasn't sufficiently prepared. A first-generation college student, he said his family didn’t always know how to handle the paperwork and pressures related to his attending a big university. He found large classes tough because of their size, he said. Speaking to professors during office hours was intimidating.

Duke, who spent just over six years working to earn her degree, also noticed an atmosphere of separation when she came to MU.

At the MU Student Center, she saw “pockets of black people” sitting together rather than being integrated with the rest of the student body. She said that once, when she went with a large group to a fraternity party, the party hosts let the black women in — but not the black men.

And then there was the day in 2010 that cotton balls were strewn in front of the Gaines-Oldham Black Culture Center, a reminder of black slavery. 

“I remember getting up that day and I was walking past the plaza, and I remember seeing those cotton balls,” Duke said. “I’ll never forget that.”

Hiring black faculty

It's hard to see yourself successful when you don’t see anyone else who looks like you reaching success, Cole said. “So what we call representational diversity or structural diversity or demographic diversity is critical,” he said.

In other words, black faculty help black students prosper. “In many cases, institutions have become more diverse, but faculty haven’t,” Estela Bensimon, professor and co-director of the University of Southern California Center for Urban Education, said.

This is true at MU. From the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2015, the undergraduate black student population rose  to 8 percent from 6 percent ; the number of black faculty stayed virtually stagnant in the same time period, at 2.8 percent.

White students made up 84 percent of the student body in 2005; now, that’s dropped to 78 percent. Although the number of white faculty has dropped, it hasn’t been by the same margin. Ten years ago, MU faculty was 78.8 percent white; now, it’s 74.8 percent white.

One widely cited reason for the lack of black faculty on U.S. college campuses is what's called the pipeline problem. If not many black students attend college, and even fewer graduate, and even fewer earn master’s or doctoral degrees, it becomes a circular problem. There simply aren’t as many black Ph.D.s to be hired as faculty members.

Cole pushes back against this thinking. There are enough black doctoral degree candidates looking for jobs who could significantly increase minority faculty at colleges, Cole said, except in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Universities should "look at hiring practices, where they advertise for faculty positions, who’s on faculty search committees, who’s deciding what research is important, and what fits within university structure," Cole said. "These are all decision points that reduce the opportunities that African Americans have (to) join the faculty."

Recently, MU's Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity required training for people involved in faculty hiring. Another one of of MU's challenges, though, is its inability to retain black faculty members.

Non-black faculty have a responsibility to black students, too, Cole said. Just because there are low numbers of black faculty on campus, “it doesn’t exclude people who are not African American from providing those support networks for students for being mentors or providing environments that are supportive.”

Exploring data

It’s not enough to hire more black faculty, though, Bensimon said. Institutions of higher education must look at their practices and procedures, too.

One way to do that: Scrutinize the data.

Data can help administrators identify barriers that hold back black and other marginalized students — which they can do, for example, by spotting which courses might have disproportionately high rates of failure for these students. 

“We have to really investigate right now what is causing the gap,” Bensimon said. “Do students drop out after the first year? Is it that they get to their junior year and run out of financial aid?”

At MU, the retention rate in 2015 for first-year African-American students was 82.9 percent; for white students, it was 87.8 percent, according to MU's Office of Enrollment Management and Office of Institutional Research

The offices collect and publish spreadsheets filled with data about students and faculty. The office of undergraduate studies also tracks data for students who are not graduating from MU but who do not enroll in the next semester, said Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies.

This office found the reasons MU students leave are in line with national trends: finances, difficulty in academics and no sense of belonging.

Closing the gap

Given the complexity of the problem, the large and looming question is: What is MU going to do about it?

MU has established several race initiatives over the past half year, but quite a bit of that responsibility to keep students at MU — and black students, in particular — falls to the Academic Retention Services office.

“Ideally, I’d love to eliminate the gap,” said Young, who also has an appointment as assistant vice chancellor with the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity. “But it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”

Young took over in July 2015, and since then he’s formed an advisory board with five subcommittees to evaluate programs to help students. They are:
  • Peer mentoring, meant to empower older students to guide newer ones.
  • An academic faculty involvement subcommittee, tasked with encouraging faculty to help students find success.
  • A financial awareness subcommittee to help students with financial literacy, especially those who may not have families who can help out.
  • A committee to evaluate the Summer Transition program, which invites 35 minority students to campus before their freshman year to take classes and learn how to navigate college before the fall semester hits. This fall, Academic Retention Services has created a Freshman Interest Group for Summer Transition participants.  
  • And finally, student success committee, which focuses on what Young calls the “holistic experience” — looking outside the classroom to make MU a more welcoming environment to minority students.

Young plans to establish changes suggested by the advisory board by spring semester of 2017. But Academic Retention Services has already begun working with the fellowships office and the Honors College to put initiatives in place, including pairing junior and senior mentors with freshmen and sophomore mentees and hosting workshops for students who are close to meeting — but don't quite reach — Honors College requirements. 

“We’ve had conversations with students who said that if it wasn’t for their relationship with their mentor, that they would’ve transferred,” Young said, though since the program is so new, Academic Retention Services doesn’t have enough data to make any definitive conclusions.

Challenges aside, students do succeed. Johnson hopes to get back on track academically at his community college and return to MU in spring 2017. Duke, bouncing her 6-month-old baby, Naysa, on her lap, said she will take the LSAT this June with the hope of going to law school in the near future.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.