Why Are Graduation Rates So Low for UWM's Black Students?

Oct 9, 2013

Students participate in an event at UWM's student union.
Credit UWM

A college education is seen as the key to joining the middle class in the country. 

Schools, organizations, and even the federal government have programs aimed at making college more accessible to people from low-income backgrounds.

But increasingly, education leaders are concerned about what happens to lower-income African-Americans once they get to college.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a freelance writer in New York who specializes in higher education.  He's a Milwaukee native, a graduate of UW-Milwaukee, and formerly wrote for the Journal Sentinel. 

Abdul-Alim read an article in the magazine Washington Monthly last winter about the issue of student progress and accountability.  That article cited data that showed only 19 percent of UWM's African-American students graduated within six years.

And so Abdul-Alim decided to come back to his alma mater to learn why that's the case.  The result is his Washington Monthly feature, called "Dropouts Tell No Tales."  He explains why he felt compelled to study the issue.

"The question I sought to ask and answer was whether or not the graduation rate at UWM was the function of family and social issues at the community level, or was there some type of systemic or institutional issues?" he says.

Abdul-Alim found evidence of both. As a native of Milwaukee, he says he's "intimately familiar" with some of the issues many black students at UWM face growing up in their communities. But he also says he found students who needed just more help with certain curricula in order to graduate.

"They can complete all the college work but it's just this college algebra that gets in the way of their degree," he says.

Abdul-Alim says one option for UWM to consider to better help connect its students to support they need, whether on the sociological or academic level, is through culturally specific academic counseling. The issue is making sure those students don't feel singled out.

"Do we offer students advisors that share their ethnic background or may be perceived as being more understanding of students from that background, or should we have those students, so-called mainstreamed?" he says.

For its part, he says UWM has recognized the merits of both options, and offers students a choice.