By Morgan Petronelli
African-Americans deal with an immense amount of issues in today’s society, but two issues aren’t easily apparent to the naked eye: graduation and retention rate.
It’s no secret that Youngstown State University struggles to retain, as well as graduate black students, but the impact of the situation can’t be put into perspective without diving into the numbers.
Currently, YSU has 11,267 undergraduate students, 13 percent of whom are African-American. Meanwhile, 75.5 percent of the undergraduate population is white.
The first-year retention rate for first-time undergraduate students comes in at 69 percent.
The total four-year graduation rate for YSU students within four years is 10.2 percent, while the five-year rate is 26.3 percent and the six-year rate is 33.5 percent.
Black students at YSU have the lowest graduation rate when compared to other races’ graduation rates at the university such as white, Asian, American Indian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander.
Last semester, YSU graduated the second-largest number of students since ‘82-’83 with a total of 2,387 students. But the latest data shows that 2010 six-year cohort graduation rate for black students is at nine percent and the four-year rate was at 2.1 percent.
Stacking the Odds
As of 2016, Youngstown had an estimated population of 64,312, with 47 percent being white and 45.2 percent being black. Youngstown has one of the largest black populations in Mahoning county.
In retrospect, if the city is nearly 50 percent black, then why does the number of minority students not coincide with this demographic?
Martin Abraham, provost and vice president of academic affairs at YSU, said that multiple factors such as lack of preparation, resources and implicit bias toward African-Americans translate to the low graduation rates of black students.
Gary Swegan, associate vice president of enrollment planning and management at YSU, echoed Abraham’s statement.
“The bottom line is that there’s a lot of things stacked up against students in Youngstown and a lot of students aren’t going to go to college,” said Swegan.
The major problem is that local Youngstown area high schools are not producing college-ready students.
An economic factor plays an integral role in inhibiting college-readiness of local students. According to the American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, Youngstown ranks in as one of the country’s poorest cities with a 38.3 percent poverty rate and a median household income of $24,133
From the most recent Ohio Department of Education report cards in 2015-2016, the Youngstown City School District had a 75.5 percent graduation rate within four years. East High School, one of the Youngstown city schools, racked in a 69 percent four-year graduation rate.
The dropout number is also especially high with 87 students dropping out of Youngstown City Schools from 2014-2015. Other key factors such as high disciplinary actions, poor ACT scores and low GPAs also play a part.
According to Swegan, since the switch from open to selective admission at YSU, the average GPA of black students jumped from 2.55 to 3.0 and the average ACT score rose from 16.6 to 18.68.
“We’re getting better students in the front door, but that isn’t showing itself yet,” Swegan said.
Swegan went on to explain that this was due to the graduate rates of African-American students typically falling under the six-year graduation rate.
Although YSU has brought in fewer African-American students from last year to this year (from 311 to 286 students), there has been a slight increase over the past few years since the university switched to selective admission, which Swegan said has resulted in more diverse students.
“My focus is not on a huge number of students coming in, it’s bringing in students that are going to graduate and I think we’re doing that now,” Swegan said.
Students of color aren’t the only ones struggling on campus. Faculty of color are also feeling the pressure when it comes to juggling issues inside and outside of the classroom.
Tiffany Anderson, assistant professor of English at YSU, expressed that YSU lacks a reasonable ratio between African-American students and faculty.
“No one’s talking about the strain that black faculty have in making sure that we keep as many black students here at possible,” Anderson said.
She continued on to say that with the black student population on campus being 13 percent and the black faculty at four percent, the faculty is being pushed to their extent.
Besides dealing with the classes, service work and research, oftentimes the black faculty members are seen as a resource by students of color when it comes to both emotional and social issues that the students are dealing with, while some faculty members don’t deal with students outside of the classroom at all.
“Our NSSE data shows that YSU is not a particularly supportive environment for underrepresented minorities, which will also drive students away prior to graduation,” Abraham said.
Finding a Solution
There are multiple solutions that could supplement the rise of African-American students and graduation rates at YSU.
One such solution repeatedly promoted by Anderson is the hiring of more African-American faculty.
“Students of color need to be in contact with faculty and staff of color because these students have a lot of things happening that affect how they exist as a student on campus. Oftentimes those students do not feel comfortable or supported in dealing with those things,” Anderson said.
She said when black students do have contact with those faculty and staff of color, those faculty members help support and mentor them through the university process.
There’s one major problem: there just aren’t enough faculty and staff of color at YSU.
Anderson also suggested a simple change of mindset she learned from Jesse Thompson, assistant dean at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, who talked to community members at the YSU Culture of Community RISE cultural competency workshop on Oct. 7.
The mindset suggested setting the bar high and helping students make sure they get over it.
“It’s this concept of ‘we’re gonna expect high things from you and we’re going to hold ourselves accountable to holding you accountable to get there,’” Anderson said.
Abraham said that YSU’s ultimate goal is to “decrease the gap in graduation rates between African-Americans and the university overall,” and achieve parity between African-American student and other student graduation rates.
Some of the steps that Abraham said YSU is taking is to create the office of college access and transitions, investing more in advising and other supplemental services, hiring new faculty for fall 2018 with the request of discussion of diversity and inclusion as part of the applications and faculty professional development over the course of the semester.
“It’s going to take several years of very hard work, and it won’t dramatically impact the six-year graduation rate until six years from now. By 2025, we should be able to achieve parity,” Abraham said.