February 28, 2012/Bridge Magazine
By Ron French
After spending most of his career as an executive at Ford Motor Co., Wayne State President Allan Gilmour knows plenty about retooling. Taking a redesigned car from the drawing board to the showroom can take three or four years.
Building a successful student retention program could take longer.
From free housing for the summer to tougher admission standards, Wayne State is pulling out all the stops to improve its dismal graduation rate for African-American students.
“We need to do things differently,” Gilmour said. “Not just us, but the whole system of education.”
Wayne State, with one of the largest African-American enrollments among four-year universities in the country, has a six-year black graduation rate of 10 percent. That rate is one of the lowest in the country, and the gap at the school between white and black graduation rates (44 percent to 10 percent) is the widest among the nation’s public universities.
“When we looked back, it was unclear why students flunked out, whether it was aptitude or family situations or work responsibilities or whatever,” Gilmour said.
The old philosophy at Wayne was access; today, it’s success.
“We want every student to come to Wayne State who can succeed here,” Gilmour said. “At the same time, it makes no sense on an individual basis, or a society basis, to let in students who can’t be successful here.”
Wayne State announced plans recently to tighten its admission standards by eliminating the guaranteed acceptance of students with a certain GPA of 2.74 or an ACT score of 21. The school estimates that about 5 percent of students who would have been accepted in the past will instead be routed elsewhere.
“It won’t just be, ‘No, and good luck.’ We’ll be a full-service shop (for applicants),” Gilmour said. “We’ll make recommendations to go to community college or vocational school. For some that is probably a smoother transition from grade 12 to grade 13.”
Gilmour admits thatWayneStatehas, in the past, accepted some students who had little chance of success. By diverting the most academically challenged students to community college and increasing counseling and mentoring for those who are accepted, school administrators believe the black graduation rate will increase.
In 2006, the school created a “learning community” program, in which students were placed in small groups with a common class or interest.
“We enhance the learning experience with peer members, extra tutoring and greater social cohesion,” said Monica Brockmeyer, interim associate provost for student success. While it’s too early to tell whether the program will impact graduation rates, retention rates have inched upward.
The percentage of African-American freshmen returning for their sophomore years has increased from 57 percent to 70 percent. “If we don’t get them to be sophomores, we’re not going to get them to graduate,” Gilmour said.
This year, Wayne will initiate a summer program, in which 150 academically challenged incoming freshmen will live in dorms for free for eight weeks, taking remedial math and writing classes as well as a college orientation class that will teach kids the skills needed to be successful on campus, such as study habits, how to read a syllabus, and where to go on campus for academic help. Florida State University has had success with a similar program.
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.