Former Engineering student Michael Powers describes the three years he spent at the University as an isolating, upward battle that he eventually lost because of financial and health issues.
“Being here was making me sick. I’m not the only minority who feels this way. I felt ignored and left behind. I was working hard and struggling just to be ignored by the university (that) I’m paying all this money to. It takes its toll,” said Powers, who is black.
Powers eventually dropped out of the University.
His plight is not especially rare — a higher percentage of whites graduate every year than Hispanics or blacks.
Although 66 percent of black students and 75 percent of Hispanic students that entered the University in 1997 graduated within six years — a higher fraction than the national average of 41 percent and 49 percent, respectively — there is still a discrepancy between these graduation rates and that of whites, 88 percent of whom graduated in six years or less after entering the University.
Like Powers, many minority students drop out before graduating from the University due to factors that are more prevalent among minority communities.
Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, said issues such as low family income and the lack of higher education among prior generations can be unique to minorities.
“(Sometimes) these students are working two or three jobs. It’s very hard to make ends meet. … Another (factor) has to do with family. A lot of these students come from first-generation college families and they are not accustomed to their first child being away from home,” Monts said.
But Monts added that the University provides assistance to underrepresented minorities by offering programs to help them deal with added challenges that they may face.
“There are programs on campus like the Summer Bridge Program that helps acclimate students to the University environment and gives them a head start on challenges they will have once the regular term starts,” Monts said.
Monts added that the University provides other services such as the Comprehensive Studies Program and the Mimi Writing Program, which he said have been successful in helping minority students keep pace with the rigor of University coursework.
“There are different ways that the University is active in providing a multicultural initiative. … All of these contribute to a student’s success if they engage those programs in a meaningful way,” Monts said.
LSA junior Tiffani Commander said she found the Summer Bridge program to be extremely helpful to her, adding that she is still benefiting from the resources the program provided her.
“I still do (benefit) because I go in to see the academic advisor,” Commander said.
But Powers, who used another resource, the Minority Engineering Program Office, said he felt the program focused on students who were already doing well rather than helping those who were falling behind.
“MEPO tried to get me to leave almost the entire time I was here. They aren’t concerned with the dropout rate. They’re a group of people whose idea is, ‘We’d rather have our average GPA be really high and have more people drop out,’ ” Powers said, adding that the University was not interested in increasing its retention rate at the cost of a lower average GPA.
Powers said that his grade point was especially low because he felt that his high school, Cass Tech High School in Detroit, did not prepare him adequately for the University.
“(Cass) was like, I’ll show you how to do this, and you just follow the steps and get good grades. While here it’s more of an applied learning. Teachers tell you what you do, and you have to go home and teach yourself. It’s like they teach you how to add in class and expect you how to multiply on the test,” Powers said.
Powers added that although programs such as MEPO have good intentions, he feels they need a dramatic restructuring to ensure that all students feel supported, in an environment that can otherwise be isolating for minorities.
But Derrick Scott, Director of MEPO said in a written statement that MEPO and the University have worked for more than 30 years to ensure a system that provides essential assistance to underrepresented minority students at the University.
“We have a number of well-tested programs; in fact, we ensure that the programs work by doing comprehensive evaluations that look at “what works” in terms of academic achievement and retention among minority students. Most importantly we are working closely with the College to insure a welcoming and supportive environment,” he said.
But Latino LSA junior Luis Lozano says that lack of finances plays a bigger role among Latinos who drop out than educational disparity.
“They can’t afford (a University education), they have good grades, but their families could no longer afford to send them. Typically, they go home to where they were from and take classes in that area,” he said, adding that he was referring mostly to out-of-state students.
Powers said that a lack of finances is one of two factors that lead to him dropping out of the University.
He added that although he received a financial aid package, he didn’t anticipate the cost of living in Ann Arbor or the high price of necessities such as books.
Lozano added that compared to school such as Wayne State University, Grand Valley State University and Michigan State University, the University of Michigan offers very few minority-based scholarships.
University Spokeswoman Julie Peterson estimated that for the academic year 2002-03, when looking at only merit awards, the University awarded 19 percent of aid (both for graduate and undergraduate education) to underrepresented minority students and 56 percent to white students.
Assistant Political Science Prof. Vincent Hutchings said because these students are in the minority, isolation — especially for minorities coming from predominantly black school districts — is a large factor affecting graduation rates.
“There are few black and minorities on campus. Those who manage to make it here have to succeed in an environment … (that is) not always inviting,” Hutchings said.
Hutchings said that because of this isolation, many black students transfer to historically black colleges, to avoid being in the minority.
“They transfer to (historically black colleges) Howard University and Morehouse College … which also undercuts “stereotype threat” that says everything you do is representative of your race.”
Stereotype threat, a theory developed by Stanford Psychology Prof. Claude Steele, states minority students carry the weight of their race; therefore, if they fail, they’ve let their race down.
Besides historically black colleges, Mont said that minorities also transfer to other universities or colleges where they feel more accepted.
For Powers, completing a University education may finally be possible becuase he has transferred out of the University and feels he can do better at Eastern Michigan University.