The University has a reputation for striving, through its recruitment and admissions processes, to achieve former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s vision of a “robust exchange of ideas.” However, receiving a thick envelope in the mail is only the first step in the rigorous journey toward graduation – a finish line that many minority students are not crossing, at least not as often as their white counterparts.
A recent University study shows that although the graduation rate for minority students has risen 10 percent over the last 10 years, the gap between minority and white student graduation rates persists. Currently, 89 percent of white students graduate within six years, compared with only 79 percent of Hispanic students and 72 percent of black students.
Despite concerted efforts by administrators to bring minority students to the University, something happens between acceptance and graduation. While the University has made efforts to reach out to minorities in the face of negative press brought on by the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, these strategies are only half the battle. Administrators have a dual responsibility here – to both enroll and retain minority students in an effort to achieve a diverse campus.
The University provides resources like Minority Peer Advisors and the Summer Bridge Program, but the disparity in graduation rates persists despite these support systems.
Although not obvious to most white students, minorities face unique challenges that hinder continued enrollment and graduation. The predominantly white student body and faculty can alienate some minority students, and the search for role models of a similar ethnic background can seem fruitless. This discouraging process may prompt students to transfer to a university with a more substantial representation of their own background. Moreover, many minority students are the first generation in their family to attend college, and therefore the expectation to pursue higher education is not as strong as in families with several generations of college graduates.
The most devastating barrier for minority students attempting to attend a college as expensive as the University, however, is financial. Overwhelmed and frustrated with the extremely high cost of a University education, many minority students leave the Maize and Blue to pursue a more affordable education elsewhere.
One answer is to increase financial aid and scholarships to underrepresented minority students. More programs like last year’s federal initiative through the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, which received $5 million to attract and retain minority students interested in science, math and engineering, will provide minority students with both a means and incentive to complete their degree. By making financial aid a top priority, the University can use fundraising, reallocation of existing scholarships and legislative lobbying to provide the funds necessary to meet student’s needs. No student should be forced to forfeit higher education for want of funding, particularly at a university that claims to be a pillar for diversity in academia.
The administration’s responsibility, however, extends beyond relieving the financial burden facing minority students. The University must cater to students who, once enrolled, find themselves overwhelmed by the rigor of classes or alienated from the predominantly white, upper-class student body. These nuanced programs are just as important as providing financial aid, if not more so.
The University has striven for decades to be a leader of academic diversity, from the first Black Action Movement in the 1970s to this decade’s U.S. Supreme Court cases on affirmative action. By focusing energy and funneling money into minority retention and graduation rates, the University can give every student what they came here to get – a degree.