Iowa universities work to improve graduation rates for minorities

Board of Regents hope to close the gap by 50 percent between the six-year graduation rates of underrepresented minority students

University of Iowa students, Jerome Sims, (from left), a sophomore, Michael Grange, a senior, Tunde Aransiola, a junior,
University of Iowa students, Jerome Sims, (from left), a sophomore, Michael Grange, a senior, Tunde Aransiola, a junior, Kyle Davis, a freshman, and Bridget Murillo, a junior, are all engaged in a discussion of, "what is success," during the Black Student Union's meeting, on Wednesday, February 22, 2012, in Iowa city Iowa. The group meets once a week to discuss upcoming events, struggles and achievements. With the black male retention rate among the major Iowa universities at a steady decline, they also discuss why they think this is. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)

IOWA CITY — Graduation rates for black students at Iowa’s regent universities remain well below the rates for all students, but officials at the schools say they see slow progress through new initiatives like mentoring, scholarship programs and targeted summer orientation.

Improving retention and graduation rates for all students is a goal for the universities, but the state Board of Regents also states in its strategic plan the desire to close the gap by 50 percent between the six-year graduation rates of underrepresented minority students and nonminority students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa by 2016.

The underrepresented minority group includes black students, who historically often have one of the biggest gaps in graduation rates compared to all students.

The reasons for the gap, which is also seen nationally, are varied, officials say. The factors that play a role in any student’s decision to stay in college — financial aid, family issues, homesickness — also impact black students, officials said.

That population also more often includes students who are the first in their family to go to college and students from lower-income backgrounds, which can impact college readiness, officials said.

African-American students say creating more ways for students to be involved and connect with a community are important, as are earlier interventions.

“I feel like there’s a lot of help and resources geared toward the development of students in general but not specifically for black men,” UI sophomore Jerome Sims, a 19-year-old education major from Chicago, said.

Officials are finding things that work in retaining at-risk populations, and it’s a matter of time and resources to roll them out to more students, Georgina Dodge, UI associate vice president and chief diversity officer, said.

Providing academic guidance and mentoring and building a cohort group of fellow students to act as a support network are all key, she said. .

“They really need to know that somebody believes in them, so it makes it highly personal, which can make it very labor intensive,” she said.

Smaller population

Black students represent a smaller population, so slight fluctuations can impact the percentages year to year, officials said. Those fluctuations can make it harder to determine a long-term trend. In fall 2011, the UI had 819 black students, ISU had 787 and UNI had 369.

Intervening with students in the first semester is critical for their success, ISU Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Dave Holger said, so ISU focuses many efforts on the first year. But it’s also important to avoid generating negative expectations from the outset, such as by telling students they should join certain groups because officials think they will struggle, Holger said. It’s more about monitoring students and being ready to intervene, he said.

“One of the things we are continuing to try to refine is how do we identify students who are in some respects at greater risk and provide the kinds of things that work for those students,” Holger said.

UNI officials are not where they want to be in eliminating the graduation rate gap for black students, Vice President for Student Affairs Terry Hogan said. But officials are happy with new initiatives, including an additional summer orientation program for first-generation students and black students and a new mentoring program for students in Jump Start. UNI formed a Retention Council aimed at finding ways to improve graduation rates and reduce the gaps where they exist for racial and ethnic minority students.

Rates for black men

Among black students, graduation rates for men is especially troubling, officials said. Men tend to lag behind women in grad rates across race and ethnic groups, officials said, but it is pronounced for black students At the UI, for example, the most recent six-year graduation rate was 71.8 percent for black women, which equaled the rate of all women, but just 43.2 percent for black men, well below the university total of 69.6 percent for all men.

UI sophomore Anthony Ferguson knows the statistics about black men being less likely to graduate in six years compared to other student populations. The 21-year-old Baltimore native researched the data and wants to find ways to help. He has volunteered to be a peer mentor in a new program through the UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment, and he wants to launch a new campus group for black men. Ferguson, an African-American studies and history major, also launched a website, to support black students.

“I think the school does a pretty fair job of getting African-Americans males to come here, but getting them to stay is a different thing,” Ferguson said. “I think that involves community building.”

When he first got to Iowa, Ferguson noticed that in some classes he was the only black student. Having a forum for black students to talk about their issues and struggles would be a step forward, he said.“I’ve had friends who just did not return and you never know, they’re not really vocal about if they’re struggling or not,” he said.

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