The grad­u­a­tion GAP

UWM has one of the worst black-white achieve­ment gaps in the U.S. Here’s what the univer­sity is do­ing about it.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Karen Her­zog Milwaukee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS­CON­SIN First of two parts

Ron­dell John­son Jr. wishes he had un­der­stood at 18 what it takes to make it through col­lege.

Now 29 and a newly minted hon­ors grad­u­ate of Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Milwaukee, the young African-Amer­i­can man can ex­plain with 20/20 hind­sight why it took him 11 years to fin­ish what tra­di­tion­ally is a four-year bach­e­lor’s de­gree.

His path wound from Marquette Univer­sity to Milwaukee Area Tech­ni­cal Col­lege be­fore fi­nally end­ing at UWM.

He got tripped up by col­lege math and didn’t ask for help. He didn’t quickly con­nect with an ad­viser or men­tor to help him nav­i­gate choices, com­pli­ca­tions and ob­sta­cles. And he started work­ing more hours and study­ing less be­cause he needed the money he earned wait­ing ta­bles to pay his bills.

John­son left Marquette af­ter three semesters with no de­gree and $36,000 in stu­dent loan debt. Be­fore he grad­u­ated from UWM, he ac­cu­mu­lated $10,000 more.

“You have to want this; it won’t be given to you,” he now says of a col­lege de­gree.

UWM has strug­gled for years to change the tra­jec­tory of stu­dents who don’t make it to grad­u­a­tion. Only 21% of African-Amer­i­cans who en­roll full-time at UWM grad­u­ate in six years. The num­ber for white stu­dents is 24 per­cent­age points higher, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased last year by The Ed­u­ca­tion Trust, a na­tional non­profit ad­vo­cacy group.

UWM ranked among the low­est-per­form­ing col­leges in the na­tion for grad­u­at­ing black stu­dents.

The fail­ure is par­tic­u­larly stark for UWM, an ur­ban univer­sity that aims to pro­vide a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion to stu­dents will­ing to work for it re­gard­less of their high school grades. UWM ac­cepts more than 90% of stu­dents who ap­ply; typ­i­cal ACT scores range from 19 to 24 out of a pos­si­ble 36.

Even with a mis­sion of ed­u­cat­ing all stu­dents who want to earn a de­gree, the fresh­man class in fall 2016 had just 199 black stu­dents out of a class of 3,104, and many did not re­turn for a sec­ond year.

Stu­dents’ rea­sons for not com­ing back are myr­iad. They may not do well in cour­ses re­quired to get into their ma­jors. They may not build a re­la­tion­ship with their ad­vis­ers. Some aren’t pre­pared for col­lege-level math and English. Or, they are forced to drop out be­cause of fam­ily is­sues or fi­nan­cial prob­lems.

Of­fi­cials at UWM hope to help stu­dents overcome those is­sues and earn de­grees.

“My stance is, if we can’t im­prove re­ten­tion and grad­u­a­tion rates in a threeto five-year pe­riod, I’m the wrong per­son for the job,” UWM Chan­cel­lor Mark Mone said when the Ed­u­ca­tion Trust study was re­leased last spring. “We need lead­er­ship on the cam­pus to help close that gap. We need to go on the of­fense.”

The is­sue goes far be­yond one school’s de­mo­graph­ics — and Mone knows it. Achiev­ing the goal is crit­i­cal for lift­ing the for­tunes of a seg­re­gated Milwaukee and con­tribut­ing to Wis­con­sin’s work­force, the chan­cel­lor said.

He added: “It’s the right thing eth­i­cally and morally to do for our stu­dents.”

Sink­ing in math

Of the black stu­dents who don’t grad­u­ate, many have trou­ble with math.

Most of them are be­hind be­fore they ar­rive on cam­pus. In UWM’s 2016 fresh­man class, for ex­am­ple, more than half needed re­me­dial math. Those who can’t pass that class and drop out have debt, but no de­gree.

John­son cruised through Brown Deer High School with­out tak­ing col­lege prep AP classes. When he first en­rolled at Marquette, col­lege math was a prob­lem.

He got in over his head in cal­cu­lus and kept sink­ing un­til his third se­mes­ter, when Marquette placed him on aca­demic pro­ba­tion.

“They sent me an email — prob­a­bly sent ‘ur­gent’ — but I was work­ing and fo­cused on mak­ing money,” John­son re­called.

He didn’t do any­thing about it; he didn’t ask any­one at school or in his fam­ily for help. When his grades didn’t im­prove by the end of his third se­mes­ter, he de­cided not to en­roll for the spring se­mes­ter.

In an ef­fort to help stu­dents who strug­gle with math, UWM in 2014 joined a na­tional move­ment and changed its teach­ing ap­proach.

In the past, stu­dents had to pay col­lege-level tu­ition for re­me­dial math classes that didn’t pro­vide col­lege credit.

Now, some of those stu­dents can take for-credit math cour­ses that in­clude time for learn­ing ba­sic skills. That could mean manda­tory tu­tor­ing or ex­tra prac­tice in com­puter labs.

Math pro­fes­sors don’t lec­ture dur­ing classes. In­stead, they record their lec­tures for stu­dents to watch on­line, leav­ing more class time for help­ing. In these classes, which re­placed tra­di­tional re­me­dial math, all stu­dents are ex­pected to solve prob­lems at the black­board and ex­plain to classmates how they did it.

In­com­ing fresh­men also may choose to get a head start on math classes in the sum­mer.

Two years into math re­forms, UWM is see­ing re­sults.

In the past, just 27% of the low­est­level math stu­dents were ex­pected to grad­u­ate within six years. That num­ber has in­creased to 39%, Vice Provost Phyl­lis King said.

There’s ev­i­dence that com­plet­ing re­me­dial math in the first year of col­lege im­proves re­ten­tion and grad­u­a­tion rates. And those stu­dents ac­tu­ally have an equal or bet­ter chance of grad­u­at­ing than stu­dents who don’t need re­me­di­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to UW Sys­tem Pres­i­dent Ray Cross.

‘I be­came an adult’

Some stu­dents can’t pass cour­ses re­quired to get into the ma­jors they want.

This of­ten leads to tak­ing too many cred­its that don’t fit to­gether for a de­gree in any ma­jor, which could lead to ei­ther drop­ping out or adding years — and cost — to their col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. The longer it takes to grad­u­ate, the more life gets in the way and in­creases the chances of stu­dents drop­ping out.

Im­ma­tu­rity ham­pered John­son as he se­lected cour­ses he couldn’t han­dle and racked up debt.

“It was drilled into me that I would go to col­lege and that col­lege is how you suc­ceed,” he said. “Maybe I should have taken a year or two af­ter high school to fig­ure out what I wanted to do. As a fresh­man, you’re not an adult and you’re not a kid. No one is go­ing to tell you that you have to go to class.”

Af­ter giv­ing up at Marquette, John­son knew he’d go back to col­lege; he just didn’t know when. He worked full-time for two years be­fore start­ing over at MATC.

Hav­ing learned from his past mis­takes, he con­quered cal­cu­lus by go­ing to a tu­tor­ing cen­ter twice a week and ask­ing the in­struc­tor for help. He felt more com­fort­able, in part, be­cause of the smaller classes at MATC.

The school was more af­ford­able, too. His restau­rant job cov­ered tu­ition, and he earned an as­so­ciate’s de­gree with a 3.7 GPA.

John­son waited an­other two years be­fore start­ing at UWM, tak­ing time to work and to fig­ure out he wanted to ma­jor in jour­nal­ism.

This time, when he strug­gled in a me­dia law class, he didn’t give up. In­stead, he talked with the pro­fes­sor, who worked with him.

“My mom told me, ‘You bet­ter ask ques­tions. You’re pay­ing money, and this is what you’re here for — to learn.’ I be­came an adult. I un­der­stood this is se­ri­ous.”

John­son grad­u­ated from UWM last spring with a 3.9 GPA. He cur­rently works part-time as a so­cial me­dia co­or­di­na­tor for a mar­ket­ing agency. He plans to re­turn to UWM in the fall to earn a master’s de­gree in Me­dia Stud­ies.

He has nearly $50,000 in stu­dent loans to pay off.

Pay­ing the bills

Fi­nan­cial chal­lenges are the norm among the stu­dents Deona Mick­ens works with as an ad­viser in UWM’s African-Amer­i­can Aca­demic Stu­dent Ser­vices de­part­ment.

“A lot of it is fi­nan­cial strug­gles,” she said. “Some have chil­dren. For some, it’s not know­ing how they will pay for books or hous­ing. That’s es­sen­tial be­fore any­thing else.”

Fed­eral Pell grants for low-in­come stu­dents cover only about one-fourth of the to­tal cost of col­lege.

The univer­sity be­gan to help with short­falls in earnest af­ter re­ceiv­ing $3.3 mil­lion in one-time fund­ing from the UW Sys­tem last year for stu­dents most in need. It is be­ing used to cover over­due tu­ition bills of be­tween $250 and $2,500 – bills that would other­wise pre­vent any stu­dent from reg­is­ter­ing for classes and force them to drop out.

One of Mick­ens’ du­ties is con­nect­ing stu­dents with jobs they can han­dle while in school.

Mick­ens, a first-gen­er­a­tion col­lege stu­dent her­self, holds de­grees in so­cial work and ad­min­is­tra­tive lead­er­ship from UWM.

Stu­dents share per­sonal is­sues with her, and she tries to help them re­al­ize each grade is im­por­tant to grad­u­at­ing.

“When you invest in your­self, you’re in­vested in ev­ery grade you re­ceive,” she said.

Didn’t want any­one to know

One of the stu­dents Mick­ens in­spired with that phi­los­o­phy is Monique Al­can­tar of Milwaukee.

Like many other stu­dents of color who are the first in their fam­i­lies to at­tend col­lege, Al­can­tar needed a sup­port net­work — peo­ple she could turn to not only for aca­demic ad­vice but also for en­cour­age­ment and a sense of be­long­ing.

When she first started at UWM in fall 2012, Al­can­tar some­times didn’t un­der­stand what was go­ing on in class, but she didn’t want any­one to know. She sat in the back, never ask­ing ques­tions. She didn’t seek out pro­fes­sors for help af­ter class.

“I didn’t have a lot of peo­ple in my life who helped me stay mo­ti­vated,” she said. “I didn’t be­lieve I could do it, so I didn’t try. I didn’t try to fight it, or prove my­self, un­til much later.”

Sit­ting be­hind rows of mostly white stu­dents, she per­ceived, rightly or wrongly, that they rolled their eyes when any­one asked the pro­fes­sor a ques­tion.

“Not only are you African-Amer­i­can, you’re the one per­son who doesn’t get it,” she said. “You don’t want to be the one sup­port­ing the stereo­type. You want to prove your­self. But you still don’t un­der­stand.”

Things turned around for Al­can­tar af­ter she met Mick­ens and Vic­to­ria Pryor, stu­dent ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor for UWM’s Black Cul­tural Cen­ter.

Over and over, the two women told her: “That small hope, that de­sire, is in there no mat­ter how dark it is. You just have to dig it out, and you’ll see how far it’ll take you.”

Al­can­tar lis­tened, and she didn’t want to let them down.

“I started to try, then I took off,” she said.

Al­can­tar grad­u­ated from UWM last spring with a de­gree in in­ter­na­tional stud­ies and $30,000 in stu­dent loan debt, five years af­ter en­rolling. She now works as an ad­min­is­tra­tive spe­cial­ist for Wauke­sha County Child Sup­port Ser­vices.

“It’s not un­til you hold the diploma in your hands, you re­al­ize your self­worth,” she said re­cently. “When I got the let­ter say­ing I of­fi­cially grad­u­ated, I cried.”

For many stu­dents, it’s hard to find the sense of be­long­ing and be­liev­ing that leads to suc­cess, said Gary Coop­erSper­ber, a se­nior ad­viser in AfricanAmer­i­can Aca­demic Stu­dent Ser­vices.

“Be­ing around neg­a­tiv­ity plays in your psy­che,” he said. “I’m still un­learn­ing the negative things I grew up with in black cul­ture. Be­ing col­lege-ready re­quires be­ing both aca­dem­i­cally and men­tally ready. The stu­dents who make it through see some­one (else) who made it to the other side.”

“It’s not un­til you hold the diploma in your hands, you re­al­ize your self-worth. When I got the let­ter say­ing I of­fi­cially grad­u­ated, I cried.” Monique Al­can­tar

Com­ing Wed­nes­day: UWM is try­ing some so­lu­tions that worked at Georgia State Univer­sity. What can the univer­sity look for­ward to?



Ron­dell John­son Jr., 29, re­vis­its the Black Cul­tural Cen­ter at UW-Milwaukee, where his 11-year path to a bach­e­lor's de­gree ended suc­cess­fully. Out of high school, he at­tended and dropped out of Marquette Univer­sity. He fi­nally connected with teach­ers and ad­vis­ers at Milwaukee Area Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, on his way to UWM.


UWM Class of 2017 grad­u­ates wear their Kente stoles at the African Amer­i­can Grad­u­a­tion Re­cep­tion last May 5. The re­cep­tion cel­e­brated stu­dents' ac­com­plish­ments and hon­ored each of them with a Kente stole made of tra­di­tional African fab­ric.


Monique Al­can­tar grad­u­ated from UWM in May 2017. Like many stu­dents of color who are first in their fam­i­lies to at­tend col­lege, Al­can­tar needed a sup­port net­work for aca­demics as well as en­cour­age­ment. She found that at UWM's Black Cul­tural Cen­ter.

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