‘A college degree will change their life forever’: A new push to help black students
Both Missouri and Kansas rank among the lowest in the nation in a new, first of its kind report card measuring how well public colleges and universities are serving the nation’s 900,000 black undergraduates.
In the report, from the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, Missouri scored 1.68 and Kansas scored 1.61 on a GPA-style scale, with 4.0 being the highest.
Most schools earned around a 2.0 — a middling grade of C — not good enough to get a transfer student admission to the University of Missouri, where a 2.5 GPA is needed. No school included in the study earned a score above a 3.5.
But area school administrators say they have addressed inequities in recent years by hiring top diversity leaders and launching initiatives to attract and retain African-American faculty and students.
“Black Students at Public Colleges and Universities,” authored by USC professor Shaun Harper and research associate Isaiah Simmons, graded 506 schools in 50 states, not including historically black colleges and universities, military academies or tribal colleges.
Using U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Education data, they scored schools based on a number of factors: the percentage of black students compared to the percentage of black people 18- to 25 years old in the state; the graduation rate of black students; the number of black women versus black men in the student body; and the ratio of black students to black faculty.
Among states, Massachusetts had the highest overall score, 2.81. Among schools, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts scored highest with a 3.5. As many as 200 colleges and universities were given scores below 2.0.
In this region, Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville scored a mere .75, landing it among the 35 lowest-scoring schools in the nation. University of Missouri-Kansas City tied with University of Missouri-St. Louis with a 2.25, the highest score among the 11 public schools in the state. University of Missouri in Columbia scored 1.75.
Among the seven public universities governed by the Kansas Board of Regents, University of Kansas racked up the highest overall score, 2.25, helped by its A grade for its ratio of black students to black faculty. The other six schools received scores of 1.7 or 1.2. KU was the only Kansas public university to be given an A grade in any category.
“I think that this makes painstakingly clear that the failure is systemic,” Harper told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s not just a handful of institutions.”
The report calls on schools to help black students be prepared academically and financially for college. But, it said, schools must also “address students’ encounters with racial microaggressions, racist stereotypes, erasure in the curriculum and overt forms of racism. Those experiences, not just academic readiness and financial aid, help distinguish black undergraduates who drop out of college from those who ultimately persist through baccalaureate degree attainment.”
MU, after being thrust into the national spotlight following racially charged protests on the Columbia campus in 2015, promised to improve diversity among students and to hire more black faculty. Both had been part of a list of demands for change from black MU students for roughly 50 years.
In the last few years MU has worked to improve on both, said Kevin McDonald, the chief inclusion, diversity and equity officer for MU and the University of Missouri System, whose position was created in 2016. For example, to make college affordable for low income students, MU this year promised all Pell Grant eligible undergraduates it would pay all tuition and fees not covered by other grants or scholarships.
But efforts have been about more than numbers, McDonald said.
“When we are looking at academic outcomes we are looking at academic performance, graduation, but we are also looking at supportive pillars like sense of belonging, sense of community … and the confidence to be able to succeed in the academic discipline that they are in.”
He admits one of the more challenging areas is keeping black faculty once they’ve been hired. The competition is tremendous, he said, and the pool of potential black faculty is shallow.
In 2014 MU had 61 African-American faculty members, up from 45 in 2008. That number then dropped to 58 after the protest. By 2017 it had jumped up to 65, the highest in a decade. For now black people make up 7 percent of the faculty at Mizzou.
As for students, MU officials report that while overall enrollment is down 3.3 percent, this year’s freshman class includes 28.5 percent more African-Americans than last year.
“We have made significant progress,” said Christian Basi, university spokesman. Still the number is down from the 2,500 in 2014. In 2016 there were 2,302 black students. Today there are 2,067.
The report showed that schools in the region got their lowest scores for inequity in graduation rates between black students and other students. Washburn, Fort Hays State, Kansas State, UMKC, Missouri State and Northwest Missouri State all got a failing grade in that area.
UMKC and University of Missouri-St Louis were the only schools to get an A grade for having a black student population that reflects the black population in the state.
Like MU, K-State hired its first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer, Bryan Samuel. In a letter to the campus when he arrived last year, Samuel wrote that “nearly every colleague and constituent with whom I’ve met has identified recruitment and retention of students, faculty and staff as a primary concern for our campus.” The report gave K-State an overall score of 1.75.
Samuel told The Star that raising the graduation rate among black students is another major challenge. K-State received an F in that category.
“But what the study does not say,” Samuel pointed out, is that this spring K-State graduated 685 students of color including American Indian, Alaska Native, Asian, African-American, Pacific Islander and Hispanic students. That accounts for 12.45 percent of the graduates. Of that group 173 were African-American, just 3.14 percent.
He said programs like Project Impact, designed to help multicultural and first-generation students graduate, have improved the numbers. “We have made a number of strategic and intentional efforts to enhance our graduation rate,” Samuel said, adding that since 2011 the graduation rate has increased 15 percent.
Most colleges, he said, have a graduation rate around 40 percent for their black students. At K-State that rate in 2016, the year measured in the USC report, was 28.8 percent, compared to the school’s overall graduation rate of 61 percent.
“We recognize that we are not where we want to be, but we are on a positive trajectory,” Samuel said.
Like other university leaders across the country, Donell Young, assistant vice chancellor for student engagement and success at MU, said Harper’s report generates a conversation worth having, but he takes issue with its method.
“Any time you have an assessment tool looking at a particular community it is always going to be difficult to measure that against other environments because each is going to be individually unique, given where they are located in the country, the politics of the particular state,” Young said. “To measure all campuses equally with one tool, I think it was a great attempt, but I think it is always difficult.”
Authors Harper and Simmons cautioned that the report should not be used “to reinforce deficit narratives about black undergraduates.” The problems cannot be explained solely by claims that K-12 schools have failed to effectively prepare minority students to be successful in college, or on bad parenting, student disengagement and low motivation.
But rather, the authors suggest higher education institutions claim responsibility for their institutional practices and cultures “that persistently disadvantage black students and sustain inequities.”