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.
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.