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June 25, 2009

Speaker shares strategies for African-American student retention

“Retention of African-American students is a crisis that we must respond to if we’re going to make a difference in the lives of African-American students,” Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy W. Humphrey told attendees at a recent minority student retention symposium on campus.

“It is a crisis we must respond to if we’re going to change the complexion of the workplace, have an impact on employment rates of professional African Americans and strengthen the graduation rate of all colleges and universities, or at least most colleges and universities in this country,” she told the University Club audience of more than 100 people.

Pitt has experienced “tremendous success” in four-year graduation rates for African-American students, School of Arts and Sciences Dean John Cooper said. “But it’s not good enough,” in part because the overall caliber of Pitt’s incoming student population has risen.

Cooper noted that when he became dean in 1998, Pitt’s four-year graduation rate for African Americans was an “appalling” 17 percent compared to 36 percent for white students. “We’ve had tremendous improvement in the years since that,” he said, noting that data for the Pitt class that entered in 2003 show the rate for black students had risen to 44 percent and the rate for white students grew to 59 percent.

“There is still a gap. The trustees about seven or eight years ago made a statement: The goal of the University is not to have a gap.”

Each fall brings a fresh group of students, Cooper said. “They’re young, they’re excited, they’re engaged and each one of those classes is your fresh opportunity to make a difference and have a better outcome.”

Keynote speaker Terrell Strayhorn, professor of higher education, director of the Center for Higher Education Research and Policy and student retention specialist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, shared what he called “promising practices” for African-American student retention.

Strayhorn said he ceased using the term “best practices” because one size does not fit all. For instance, he said, peer mentoring “works amazingly” for black students at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, where the retention rate is 97 percent.

“I met my best friends through this peer mentoring program,” he said, noting that they are trained to be aggressive — so much so that after he had declined to attend several mixer events, his mentor found him in his dorm room and wouldn’t take no for an answer, dragging him to a cookout. “She knew something that I didn’t know: that to be successful at the University of Virginia it was going to take them, faculty, staff — and that level of support.”

Why doesn’t it work the same at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where retention is 79 percent? “It’s a different student, with different needs and peer mentoring is not the only thing that student needs,” he said.

“The average African-American student, no matter how high achieving and no matter what background, comes to college with a number of challenges and needing support,” Strayhorn said.

Previous research has shown that African Americans who hail from families of high socioeconomic status and low-risk background, maintain high GPAs in high school and college, whose college-educated parents have high expectations and involvement in their education in high school and college, have a more internal locus of control and have positive attitudes toward coursework were most likely to stay in school.

However, Strayhorn said, less than 3 percent of students fit that profile.

Student success is a function of the time and energy students invest in the college experience, Strayhorn said. Those who are engaged learn more, adjust more easily and work out identity issues better. Engagement is linked to important outcomes such as critical thinking, adjustment to college, psychosocial development and persistence, he said.

“Student success is also a function of how well we call students to become attached to our campus. If we don’t, we’re not being a very successful institution.”

Strayhorn noted gender differences in student engagement among African-American students.

Black women are more involved in clubs and organizations. They also outperform black men academically, he said, noting his finding that, on average, the men spend less time studying than women. And black women report more participation in discussions. “That’s problematic because when I put my grades together, I think about who talked in class,” Strayhorn said.

In a course he taught on African-American men in society, while only 10 of 42 students were black men, he found they often guided the discussion. “I think that, yes, on average, quite often black men don’t participate in discussion except when they have something to say,” Strayhorn observed. “I think it’s our job to figure out how to translate material in ways that are meaningful to African-American students, but also to black males as well.”

Black men are more likely to be involved in sports than are black women, and more frequently follow an exercise schedule.

Black male college athletes also report being athletically satisfied but not academically satisfied with their universities. The lack of engagement in their institution has an impact on retention, Strayhorn said.

“Clearly something happens when it comes to athletic engagement, so while they don’t spend as much time studying, in class discussions or in formal clubs, it is true that across most campuses black men spend considerably more time in gyms, working out in fitness centers and on formal sports teams. The question for us is what is going on in that environment and what can we do to duplicate it?” he said, noting that conversation and relationship-building that doesn’t occur elsewhere are promoted in these environments. “We need to figure out what goes on and how to manufacture it,” Strayhorn said.

Team athletics, he noted, take attention away from differences in favor of focusing on a common task. Problem-based learning may be the academic equivalent. “Working together gets students to focus on the task while de-emphasizing their differences,” he said.

Strayhorn noted that while African-American students may come to college committed to the goal of getting an education, “the problem is most African-American college students are not that committed to the institutions. Part of that may be a personal issue, that they need to attach themselves. Our job is to help them attach themselves to the campus more and foster a sense of belonging.”

Those who are more socially and academically integrated are more likely to succeed, he said.

Social integration into an institution appears to be more important than academic integration, he said. Complicating the model, however, are old ideas from retention scholars that encourage students to sever ties with home in order to integrate themselves into the campus.

Those ideas are changing, Strayhorn said, noting that students need to have people they can trust who are not attached to the university — friends, family, churches back home. Rather than sever ties, scholars now are finding students need to learn how to navigate and negotiate those home ties, he said. “We need to help students learn how to become acclimated to Pittsburgh while nurturing home ties,” he said.

Seeking ways to increase retention in the subpopulation of black males is a crucial part of the issue. Strayhorn said that while their numbers have grown, the percentage of black males among college students has remained the same since 1976, just 3 percent.

The gender gap also is most pronounced among African-American college students, with black women outnumbering black men by more than 2:1.

Black men have the lowest degree completion rate of all genders and races with only one in four graduating within six years. It doesn’t mean the other three do not finish, Strayhorn said. One may transfer and finish elsewhere; the other two are highly likely to transfer but not earn their degree.

“What happens to the talent that’s lost there?”

Strayhorn detailed results from focus groups he conducted with African-American males to get feedback about their college experience.

Students welcomed the chance for discussion, Strayhorn said. One told him, “‘In this conversation I talked with my peers, I talked with you about my own challenges. One thing I learned is that what I’m going through is what this person’s going through, what they’re going through is similar — maybe not the same — as what this other person’s going through.’”

Another responded by composing song lyrics:

Please help me to reach my goals
Even when I do wrong
I’m still learning
what it means to be me
Use your wisdom and be my guide.

“Young people understand they need people to be guides in order to succeed in college,” Strayhorn said. Those guides are “people who will give them ideas and strategies and advice about what’s effective.”

Strayhorn elaborated on several challenges that may affect the ability of African-American students to stay in college, compiling a list with input from the audience: adjustment issues; money problems; family issues; lack of home support; poor study habits; time demands, and finding their niche in their community.

He noted that the campus climate for black students on a predominantly white campus can be an issue. “Although sometimes we can condition our campus environment, we often can’t change the city or environment around the campus,” he said. Even if a student feels safe on campus, he or she might go out to the store and have a different experience, Strayhorn said. “Still, that’s our student; we have to help that student learn to negotiate and manage those issues.”

He also pointed out that financial issues are not the same for all students. For instance, while a low-income student might require help to meet basic education expenses, middle-income students’ needs might center on having money for events or supplies.

Single parenthood increasingly is affecting black men on campuses today, Strayhorn said noting that research shows that students who become parents prior to high school graduation are less likely to go to college. However, those who have a child after enrolling in college can be affected in other ways. With the support of family, commitment to education tends to increase, Strayhorn said. Without it, students may find they have to quit school to meet their parental responsibilities.

Understanding the millennial generation also can help when dealing with today’s students, Strayhorn said.

In general, millennials are high achieving, optimistic and politically aware, he said. They also have overly involved parents and have grown up being told they are special.

These characteristics have pluses and minuses.

“We see some evidence that today’s college student may be high achieving, but not internally motivated so when they face challenges that require internal motivation they then don’t persist,” he said, adding that it’s particularly true for African-American students.

Millennial students may be optimistic, but not always realistic: “They think they can be president although they’re not even on the ballot,” he said. “They’re optimistic and they think they can do anything, but not always do they have the realistic self appraisal that’s necessary.”

Millennials’ overly involved parents have structured and ordered their children’s lives, he said, adding that parental involvement is important, but too much can hinder students’ development of independence and identity.

“Overly involved parents create a number of challenges for us in education,” he said, recounting how an upset parent called him to discuss a grade he had assigned in a graduate course. “I can only imagine what they’ll do when they have a problem with a roommate in a residence hall, or when they don’t get selected for the fraternity or sorority of their own choosing.

“This is the first time some parents have ever heard: You have to loosen the strings some.” Letting go and allowing students to make their own decisions can be hard, he acknowledged. But, he noted, in college, students can make mistakes “and the consequences aren’t that great.” Parents need to get the message that if there’s a place for students to mess up, “this is the right place: We’re here. All of us are here to support them,” he said.

Millennials’ belief that they are special also is problematic. “They’ve heard all their lives that they’re special, destined for greatness.” African-American students also face this, particularly if they’re the first generation in their family to go to college, he said. Being told, We expect great things from you, is supportive and encouraging, “but then, once they reach the college door, that student is left to shoulder that burden. That is, what does it mean to be special? What does it mean to be special though I’m looking at a failing grade on a chemistry test? Special people don’t get rejected by organizations. … These are huge identity issues that students need to resolve and they need our help in balancing them.”

Strayhorn recounted the theory developed by Carney Strange of Bowling Green State University: “Experiencing a psychological sense of belonging and being free from physical threat and harm are prerequisites for the pursuit of opportunities leading to learning growth and development.”

Strayhorn said, “When you come to a campus where you feel connected and free from those kinds of threats, you feel free to pursue opportunities to learn, to come to events, to go to speakers, to participate in certain class discussions.”

He noted research showed that 70 percent of African-Americans students on predominantly white campuses expected to encounter racism or discrimination on campus; of those, 62 percent reported experiencing it. “In this analysis, those who actually expected it and those who actually experienced it actually performed lower — their grades were lower, and their sense of belonging was lower than the black students who did not,” he said.

Strayhorn urged his listeners to examine peer and faculty mentoring, as well as formal and informal academic advising as ways to enhance student retention. Targeting high school talent to expose high schoolers to college life earlier on and to help them with the transition to college has been proven effective, he said. In addition, summer bridge programs that keep students engaged can be useful, he said, noting that few African-American students are lost during the semester, but more don’t return following breaks in the academic schedule.

He encouraged the audience to develop ways to change conditions and environments to help students fit in. “If students want to develop a sense of belonging, having staff who understand their experiences, who are empathetic to their experiences, but who also appreciate what they bring to the college environment is important.” Having staff who look like them also is important, he said.

“Those are things we can change. With those kinds of changes, I think we’ll see gains.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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