USA: The crisis in black university enrolment and graduation

Of note. Curious to know if there is disaggregated data for Canadian university admissions and enrolment to see whether different minority groups have been affected differently post-COVID:

Like so much else related to the COVID pandemic, the disruptions caused to important high school events such as university open houses and access to guidance counsellors has hit African American students thinking of going to college or university especially hard. 

The school shutdowns meant that these students, often the first in their families to even consider going on to higher education, had to fill out unfamiliar forms on kitchen tables. Sometimes, as was the case for those applying to Old Dominion University (ODU) in Virginia, they had the aid of online tutorials or Zoom sessions. Then there was the financial aid process and its complicated forms.

“These students don’t know what they don’t know,” says Dr Don Stansberry, vice president for student engagement and enrollment services at ODU. “This is true for many students, but it is disproportionately true for our black and African American students. 

“I think this is indicative across most college campuses, you see [this year] a drop off in the number of black and African American applicants and their numbers in this year’s intake because they didn’t follow through with the rest of the process, such as financial aid.”

Overall, there were 603,000 fewer students enrolled in colleges and universities in the spring of 2021 as compared with 2020, a decline of 3.5%. Figures released by the Virginia-based National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in early October showed that since the start of the pandemic the numbers of black freshmen have declined by 22.3%, while the overall drop was 12.3%.

Historic under-representation

Even before the COVID-caused decline in blacks going on to higher education grabbed headlines, they were faring poorly in relation to college and university. 

Prior to COVID, 55% of college and university students were white, while blacks made up 9.6% of the students in higher education, almost 4% less than their numbers in the general population. 

In the decade after 2011, the percentage of blacks in the student population declined by almost 11%, reversing a trend that had begun in 1976, which saw the percentage of black students in college and university rise by just under 40%. Over the six years ending in 2017, 55% of blacks dropped out of college as against 33% of whites.

At public colleges and universities, the figures are even more dire. According to a paper prepared by Olivia Sanchez and Meredith Kolodner for the New York-based Hechinger Report, released in early October, at public colleges and universities, a white student is 2.5 times more likely to graduate than a black peer.

Taking account of both public and private colleges and universities, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, in the last cohort to graduate before COVID, 61.3% of white males graduated as compared with almost 35% of black males; the figures for women were 67.3% to 44.8%.

There are a number of reasons for this gap. One of the most often cited is college readiness. A disproportionate number of black students attend under-resourced and poorly equipped high schools that leave them underprepared in reading, writing and maths. 

In 2016, the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington DC, reported that more than half (56%) of blacks are placed in remediation classes in contrast to 35% of whites. Citing a number of different studies, CAP says fewer than 10% of students in remedial programmes graduate in the six-year window that is used to define successful completion of four-year degrees.

It is certain that few students placed in remedial courses know of the 2009 study by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, “Referral, enrolment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges”, that shows that students who were placed directly into regular college courses stood a better chance of graduating than did those placed in remedial courses. 

Yet, they don’t have to. For, as any professor who has ever taught students who have been in remedial courses, being in them has a negative impact on a student’s academic self-perception.

When I asked Dr Wil Del Pilar, the Education Trust’s vice-president of higher education, about how these courses impacted black students in particular, he said: “You took this course in high school. Now all of a sudden you take a math or English placement test, and it places you, say, three levels below the courses you are getting college credit for. This has a significant impact on academic self-perception and self-efficacy.” 

Since taking remedial instead of credit-bearing courses takes extra time and delays a student’s graduation – in addition to making the student ask the self-defeating question, “Am I ever going to complete this credential or degree?” – it creates a financial crisis that is disproportionately experienced by black students, Del Pilar says.

The financial crisis arises from the fact that, while remedial classes do not count as credit hours (course time toward graduation), there is no reduction in tuition fees. 

In other words, a student who is taking three hours of remedial English and three of maths pays the same tuition fees as a student who is taking a full 16-hour load even though the student in remedial courses is taking only 10 credit hours. 

To accumulate the 120-130 credits that most colleges and universities require for graduation, students who take remedial courses either have to take courses during the summer to make up for the missing credits or have to stay in school an extra semester or more. 

In either case, the student has to pay extra tuition fees (and often room and board costs). As well, the student who goes to summer school or stays for extra semesters forfeits a certain amount of income. These extra semesters are one of the reasons blacks graduate on average with US$25,000 more debt than white students.

According to Del Pilar, neither Pell Grants (a federal grant given to the most financially disadvantaged students) nor most other financial aid programmes are geared to students who spend extra semesters in college or university.

“You end up using your eligibility on these courses that don’t earn you credits toward your degree. So, when you get towards the end of your course, your credential or degree, you run out of eligibility for Pell Grants or other types of aid.”

Though it is not directly related to these students’ college or university career, Del Pilar emphasised to me, it is important to understand that America’s racial wealth gap means that more black students live on a financial knife edge than do white students. A US$800 car repair bill, for example, could be too much, causing a student to drop out of school and lose eligibility for aid.

Alienation on campus

As do many Latinx and other minority students, African American students can find being on campus an alienating experience that differs from what their white peers feel. 

While formal segregation is outlawed, de facto segregation exists in many parts of the country; instead of there being separate schools for blacks and whites, housing patterns separate the races and, thus, most district schools, for example. 

Accordingly, a large proportion of blacks attend majority black schools. Save for the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Howard University in Washington DC and inner-city public universities in places like Newark, New Jersey, New York City and Chicago, most African Americans who go to college find themselves a member of a minority community on campus and, thus, find themselves in a more alienating environment than white freshmen do.  

At the University of San Francisco, for example, 349 of the school’s full-time enrolment of 1,738 is black. 

Even though he chose ODU because he wanted to go to a school that was not majority black, as was his high school in Highland Springs, a small town (population 16,500) that is 73% black, Montae Taylor, who graduated in 2018, told University World News that despite being friends with a number of international students, he still found the school alienating.

In part this was because Taylor and many of his black classmates were the first persons in their families to go to college. The pride they felt was in tension with the fact that their families did not understand how much work is required to succeed in university. Students who are the first in their family to go to a higher education institution commonly report that their families tell them, “If you’re in class only 16 hours a week, then you can get a job and work a full week.” 

“Nobody in our families had been this far in education before. They really don’t understand the work requirement that we’re under or anything of that nature. So, it’s hard to find somebody [in our families] that can really push you and motivate you to excel academically,” says Taylor.

In part, Taylor also felt alienated in class, a condition he told me was shared by his black peers. 

Unlike his white classmates, Taylor and the others in his pre-law courses had trouble negotiating and understanding the texts they were given to read in class. He watched as his white classmates “could just sit there and read a passage one time and right then and there they understood exactly what it meant, exactly what the person was getting at”.

As Taylor spoke, I couldn’t help thinking back on my 30 years of teaching English at college and university, and being impressed with his and the other students’ self-analysis. 

On their own, Taylor and his black classmates realised that to bridge the gap of understanding, they had to engage the texts differently. They had to take account of (what phenomenological psychologists call) their “horizon of expectations”, formed by the totality of their lived experience as young black men in America. 

Then, rather than try to bracket that experience, as if it did not exist, they judge the distance between it and what they had been told in class and knew of the white authors, before engaging in an iterative process that brought them to an understanding of the texts.

“We had to read it, talk about it to each other and have a little debate about it for us to come to a full and complete understanding because we might be looking at it from our point of view, which is a black man’s point of view,” says Taylor, who is now a businessman in Texas and Virginia, and was state president of Virginia’s Youth and College Division of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

In 2018, Taylor was one of the key student organisers in establishing a chapter of Brother to Brother at ODU. It differs from other clubs and honour societies on campus that helped students attach to the university. 

“In this programme,” says Stansberry, “black and brown upperclassmen come together to support other black and brown males in their academic journey. They partner with our first-year students and help them navigate the college campus and their own journey.”

In addition to providing ODU’s black students with a place to gather and talk with people who look like them (something which became all the more important, Taylor said, after the election of Donald Trump as US president), Brother to Brother serves two other very important functions. 

According to Dr Johnny W Young, the associate vice president for student engagement and enrollment services at ODU, Brother to Brother provides a place where ODU’s black students can support each other and counteract the negative stereotypes about black men. 

One stereotype that is especially damaging for university students, Young says, is that back where the students come from, excelling academically is not necessarily a point of pride: “It’s sometimes seen, for lack of a better word, as ‘nerdy’.” Equally pernicious is the stereotype that black men are prone to violence and that where they live is violent.

Even if a student does not have direct experience with these stereotypes, they know the stereotypes from the media and, sometimes, from family stories. “Having those young men talk about things they face, that their fathers faced, that their brothers faced growing up as young men of colour,” says Young, “helps them deal with the stereotypes and reject those untrue narratives. Sharing stories can be a source of inspiration for these young men.”

Brother to Brother also serves as the base from which students form study groups. Further, the organisation acts as something of a coach. 

During the summer when Taylor was vice president of ODU chapter, they heard that a large number of black students had not completed the paperwork to return in September. Members of Brother to Brother called these students and asked if they needed help organising themselves for the upcoming school year. 

Taylor found that of the calls he made, around 85% of the students who originally said they were not coming back had changed their minds. 

“Sometimes it was as simple as helping them find the proper resources they needed that would make them feel supported in finishing the process of education,” he said.

In the last year before COVID, there were 194 students in the Brother to Brother programme; approximately one-third of ODU’s enrolment of 23,655 is black. 

According to Dr Young, the students in the Brother to Brother programme had on average a grade point average 1.5% higher than did similar students not engaged with the programme. 

Though ODU’s data does not support making predictive claims and recognising that the group is self-selected, Young was willing to hazard a few statements. 

“We think there are a couple of things going on. First, the Brothers appear to attract young men who want to be leaders, who want to excel. But we also see that some men join who perhaps needed that extra push. Being around young men who want to excel can make you want to do very well. That can rub off on them, for lack of a better word.”

To help all black students celebrate their identity and attach to the university, ODU sponsors an annual Sankofa Dinner. Sankofa comes from Akan Twi and Fante languages of Ghana and means ‘retrieve’ and is symbolised by a bird with its head turned backward; its feet face forward, and it carries a precious egg in its mouth. 

This year’s Sankofa event featured a seven-person panel of graduates among whom was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Ernest, MD, who graduated in 1999. He was the first African American male to graduate from Eastern Virginia Medical School and is presently chief of urology and director of surgical simulation at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. 

Another panellist was Sade Seaborne, a 2010 graduate who has worked as a technical project lead for the Department of Justice and is now a product manager for the finance company Capital One.

“The attendees,” says Stansberry, “were all African American students but it was an event that was designed to be a chance for them to celebrate their own identity.” 

Other events, like homecoming, fulfil what Stansberry told me was the number one reason that students choose to come to ODU. “One of the things they are most proud of is the diversity we have on campus and the opportunities they have to interact with students that are different from themselves.”

Old Dominion University’s efforts to help black students attach to and thrive at the campus in a city, Norfolk – which is home to the largest naval base in the world and which, at the start of the Civil War, was in Confederate hands – have been successful. 

Whereas on average in public universities white students graduate at a rate 2.5 times that of black students, ODU, which is a public university, has bucked the trend: the graduation rate for African American students who started in 2015 is almost the same as the overall graduation rate. 

Forty-four percent of African American men graduated as against 45% of the school’s overall male population, while the percentage of African American women graduating was 1% less than the overall female rate of 52%.