For UW-Milwaukee student, Ken Harris Jr., freshman year symbolizes struggle as much as it does growth. After his graduation at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Harris came to UW-Milwaukee to pursue higher education in music.
“UWM was one of the schools I applied to that really allowed me to keep in touch with my family,” said Harris when asked why he chose the school.
This new experience came with new difficulties, however. Harris soon learned that college courses were challenging and UWM’s general education curriculum was unforgiving. Some of Harris’s friends transferred to other universities. Others exchanged their backpacks and books for UWM’s party scene.
Three years later, the soft-spoken senior still makes the 20-minute journey from Brown Deer to UWM, but not without watching several off his friends leave the university prematurely and facing challenges that make acquiring his own degree more difficult. Harris, however, isn’t the first to watch and experience what has become a frighteningly common occurrence among African -American students at UWM. Challenges and pressures both on and off-campus are compelling students to drop out or pushing them onto the doorsteps of other universities. Despite these odds, students like Harris are still thriving. Unfortunately, Harris is among the minority. UWM’s unwavering general education curriculum could responsible for this, but only in part.
Chloe Wilkerson, a senior at UWM, noticed her new college’s diverse student body after transferring from the University of Illinois. However, she observed something else as well. African American students appeared to be concentrated in the freshman and sophomore classes and tapered off in the junior and senior classes.
“You’ve got a lot of freshman that are black, but not a lot of seniors,” said the education policy major.
Wilkerson was right. In the fall 2011, 310 students who identified as African American enrolled as freshman at UWM. The UWM Office of Assessment and Institutional Research cites that, by the following fall, only 187 of those students were still attending UWM. Forty percent of African American students who started at the university in 2011 had already either transferred to a different university or stopped pursuing a college education altogether.
Overall, in 2011, the most recent year for which detailed statistical data is available, 3676 students enrolled as freshmen in 2011 and only 2,520 of those were attending UWM the next year. Of those, 521 of the students who weren’t at UWM for their sophomore years transferred to other schools. Of the whole, 2,643 students who identify as white enrolled as freshmen in 2011 and only 1,834 of those were attending UWM the following year. Retention is a problem for other demographic groups also. There were only 114 students who identified as Latino/a and only 80 of those students were still attending the following year.
Such a drastically reduced number from one fall to another speaks loudly in regards to UWM’s ability to retain African-American students past their freshman year.
To Susan Fields, Coordinator of African American Student Services, this epidemic is like not much more than students moving on to better things. Although UWM’s efforts to hold onto African American students may be failing, African students are not.
“I think that it’s a misnomer that every African American student that leaves after their freshman year is leaving because they flunked out. They could be completing their degree at another institution,” Fields said.
According to Fields, many students are trading an education at an urban university for that of a residential one, such as UW-Madison. In fact, of the 123 freshmen who began their college careers in 2011 but did not enroll at UWM in 2012, 29 transferred to other schools.
However, this leaves 94 students who dropped out between their freshman and sophomore years without transferring.
Patricia Cole is a junior at UWM, double majoring in broadcast journalism and advertisement/public-relations. As a single parent and student, she faces stressors that many students might not on a daily basis. For her, UWM’s general education requirements only magnify the difficulty of being a multi-faceted student and create unnecessary challenges.
“You kind of feel like you’re wasting time on other classes that you could be spending doing something else,” said Cole. “For instance, now we have to take four semesters of foreign language to get our Ad/PR degree.”
In addition to a learning American Sign Language, Cole must appease the university’s rigid math requirements. She is currently taking Math 95, a remedial math course that can only be attempted a maximum of three times and must be passed with a C or better.
“That’s been really hard,” said Cole when asked about her math class. “I’m surprised I’m even passing it.”
Even when Cole passes the course this fall semester, she will not receive credit for it. Being a remedial course along with Math 90, it offers no credit with a passing grade. She will simply move on the last course in UWM’s general mathematical education curriculum, Math 105.
“Math is one thing that can make us just feel like, ‘I don’t want to continue’,” said Cole.
Although Cole is completing Math 95 during her junior year, many students take the remedial math courses early in the college careers. According to Mathematics Department Chairperson, Kyle Swanson, this may have a real impact on a new African-American student’s success.
“An African-American student who places into Math 90 has about a twenty percent change of passing general education math,” said Swanson.
For African-Americans specifically, math general education requirements have proven especially challenging. Swanson cites an achievement gap of fifteen to twenty percent when comparing African American students and Caucasian students whose ACT scores match.
Change may be in reach for students like Cole, however, with the unveiling of what Swanson hopes to be a solution to this glaringly influential factor in UWM’s retention of African American students.
During the fall semester of 2014, the UWM Math Department will institute a new general math education curriculum that calls for, at the lowest placement level, only one semester of remedial math and one semester of a credited math course to satisfy the general education requirements.
Swanson said that these “mathematical literacy courses” will be group work, writing, and reasoning driven. About 1,100 to 1,200 students are expected to enroll in the courses next fall, making this the largest scale as well as the only urban university setting that this program has been tested on, thus far.
What warranted such a significant change on the part of the UWM Math Department? According to Swanson, faculty is unhappy with the results that the present system yields, that the present system is “asking too much”. In regards to African American students, Swanson appears to feel similarly.
“I’ve sat down with a handful of African-American students and talked to them about their experiences. Numbers-wise, it’s pretty devastating.”
The math chairperson doesn’t find math to be the only cause for a poor African American retention rate, however.
“It’s easy to say, ‘It’s just academics. Forget about it.’ It’s not,” said Swanson.
Michael Sidowski, a sophomore at UWM, also seems to find that the university’s retention of African American students depends on factors outside the realm of academia.
“There are a lot of environment-related things,” said the conservation and environmental science major. “Some African American students may have a problem with where they’re living and other influences outside of school.”
Harris also claims that a student may either transfer or drop out of UWM for reasons unrelated to academics. Students may have personal reason to leave, personal or simply to experience life in a new place and enjoy the residential college experience.
Despite the reasons he feels a student might leave, Harris still endorses UWM as a university.
“I advise younger students in their senior year of high school to come here because it’s really enjoyable. There a lot of fun things here.”
Those things may be what Fields claims to be UWM’s efforts, such as newly built dorms and better efforts to include students in campus life, to make the school more representative of a residential university.
At present, however, African-American students face struggles that make life as a student at UWM unduly challenging.