The black experience in higher education is simultaneously an incredibly broad and regrettably narrow topic. Broad because race can influence many different facets of a student’s college experience; narrow because race is but one of many factors that interact to shape that same experience. With these limitations in mind, this article will explore the experience of black students at Wooster from quantitative and qualitative perspectives, as well as consider the steps the College is and should be making to improve the well-being of its black population.
According to an administrative report from January, the current proportion of black students retained by the College is just as large as, if not larger than, the proportion of white students retained. For instance, of the original black students in the class of 2014, 83 percent are still enrolled, as compared to 77 percent of their white classmates.
These retention rates stand in sharp contrast to the graduation rates of previous classes. As reported on the College’s website, Wooster’s overall six-year graduation rate for the classes of 2006 through 2010 was 76 percent. Yet the graduation rate of black students during the same period was 60.2 percent. No other reported demographic group — racial, national or gendered — had a graduation rate below 70 percent.
When Wooster’s former graduation rates are compared against those of similar institutions, this achievement gap appears even more stark. According to data from the government-run National Center for Education Statistics, the graduation gap between white and black students at The College of Wooster was twice as large as the gap at any other Ohio Five school (Denison, Kenyon, Oberlin and Ohio Wesleyan).
Wooster administrators are quick to point to the discrepancy between the retention of current students and the graduation rate of past students as evidence for significant progress in the College’s ability to retain black students.
“The institution realized we could and should do more to improve and have been working hard the past four years to implement new initiatives to do so,” said Robyn Laditka, associate dean of students for retention and academic engagement. “I think we are beginning to see some positive improvements in minority retention as a result.”
Yet it is worth noting that graduation and retention rates for small groups of students, such as Wooster’s black students, can fluctuate wildly from year to year. For example, 71 percent of black students in the class of 2002 graduated, followed by a mere 52 percent in the class of 2003. Consistent patterns can only be found when data from multiple years are averaged together. It will take time to tell whether Wooster’s current high retention rates will translate into a lasting upswing in the College’s black graduation rate.
Another downside to graduation and retention rates is that they give a rough sketch of student achievement and satisfaction. There are many variables that influence whether or not a student will graduate, necessitating further information to understand racial disparities among Wooster students.
To find more nuanced quantitative measures, one cannot turn to the College — which does not collect any demographically divided satisfaction data from its students. A better source for detailed quantitative information on the experience of Wooster’s black students is the Senior Independent Study of Carmen Guess ’12. Guess, a psychology major, polled black and white students with a variety of psychological questionnaires designed to quantify their relative success and satisfaction with college. Wooster students comprised 95 percent of Guess’s sample (140 out of 147 participants), with the other seven participants also coming from predominantly white colleges.
In Guess’s study, black students reported lower GPAs, less satisfaction with college and less support than their white classmates, as well as heightened racial identity and pressure to conform.
“In comparison to black students, white students appeared to be more successful and satisfied at predominantly white institutions,” wrote Guess in her discussion.
Even though Guess’s study is several years old, uses some participants from other schools and looks at a relatively small proportion of Wooster’s student body, it still offers perhaps the most comprehensive and nuanced quantitative look at racial discrepancies at the College currently available.
Yet in the eyes of many members of the campus community, numbers can only explain so much. Qualitative information is needed to properly contextualize the statistics.
“I get out there with the students,” said MarTeze Hammonds, associate director of the Center for Diversity and Global Engagement, director of multicultural student affairs and assistant dean for retention and academic engagement. “I’m going to club meetings, I’m going to their programs, I’m having focus groups. I’m rolling up my sleeves to be in the midst of my student population to see how I can put my thumb on the pulse of what’s going on. … That’s how I get my quantitative reality. That’s how I get the real story, by going out there and literally speaking to these students.”
“Large institutions, they’re probably really interested in big data and trying to crank through numbers and then adjust,” said Henry Kreuzman, dean for curriculum and academic engagement. “What we tend to do is we look at students as individuals.”
At the very least, qualitative data is more readily available than statistics. Students reports abound of black students bearing the brunt of insensitive jokes, consistently being picked last for group assignments, receiving poorer grades than their white classmates for similar work, etc.
From the beginning, the transition to college contains unique challenges for black students.
“Students of color, particularly black students, coming here from different class backgrounds have a varying level of experience with predominantly white learning institutions,” said Deja Moss ’14, president of the Black Student Association and a member of Women of Images. “Whether it [was] parental advice or the resources that they had available to them if they went to a school where they were the only black student, [it] really shapes what social activities they think they can be involved in, what resources on campus they think are best fit for them and supporting them, whether it be with academics [or] social endeavors.”
“Obviously a great number of black students at Wooster come from these communities in these different areas where the schools are under-privileged,” said Antwan Chambers ’14, president of Men of Harambee and longstanding officer in the Black Students Association. “So, what is Wooster doing to fill that gap, to fill that achievement gap that obviously very much exists in the students here? How are the college writing courses that a lot of those students have to take actually preparing the students? How are the professors actively thinking about the fact that there may be some sort of gap in the students’ understanding?”
Another common belief is that Wooster is much more interested in recruiting black students than supporting them once they arrive on campus. According to a 2013 institutional self-study, the number of domestic multiethnic students has doubled since 2006.
In the report, the College admitted, “we have achieved a more diverse campus more quickly than we were prepared, programmatically, to support it.”
“What has been a consistent cycle at Wooster is [that] there is always this push for more diversity, for more students of color in x, y and z. Just more, they want more,” said Chambers. “But what they don’t provide more of is the support that these students need. … How are you going to make them feel connected? How are you going to prepare the students, the faculty, the other administrators who may not necessarily be involved in this kind of choosing process?”
“We have to be careful,” said Hammonds. “We double numbers, we make numbers look so much [better] quantitatively and on paper, but qualitatively and in the day-to-day, we don’t have the people, we don’t have the tools and resources.”
Recent steps the College has taken to address the needs of black students — and multiethnic students more generally — include last fall’s forum series on race, a greatly increased number of events surrounding Martin Luther King Day, Wednesday night study sessions targeted at students of color, an investigation into minority student retention in the life sciences, social justice education and Susan Lee’s new position as the special assistant to the president for diversity affairs and campus climate.
“This year, we’ve had plenty of opportunities for faculty, staff and students to embark on an amazing journey of diversity,” said Hammonds, “an amazing journey of learning about race.”
“I feel like the school has made some steps — not by their own doing, but by a strong push by black students — to address the issues of race on campus or how they’re feeling slighted,” said Moss.
Perhaps the most-cited suggestion to further academic and social support for black students is to increase the number of black professors and administrators, especially in influential positions.
“One thing that the College will point out that they have — and that all students will acknowledge — is that the College has definitely grown in its faculty support for students of color,” said Chambers. “There are more faculty and administrative individuals of color who really have an eye out for students of color. … They look out for us. I think the College has done that. I think what they haven’t done is placed — I think there’s potential though — them in positions where they have enough power in order to effect the necessary changes.”
“It doesn’t have to be a black person,” said Hammonds. “There are some white professors who are amazing and understand white privilege [and] understand the black culture. … They can connect with those students and those students will go to them, hands down, and talk to them about anything. But we need more people who are like that.”
There is disagreement, however, on whether black students face struggles beyond those experienced by other racial minorities on campus.
“The pressures, that I believe exist uniquely [for] black students, is this overwhelming presence of subtle or overt racism, or prejudice or sexism, that is reflected in everyday conversations,” said Moss. She holds that the perceived otherness of black people is more salient than for other ethnic or racial groups.
“I absolutely do not think that that’s the case,” said Chambers. “Just off the top of my head, the other ethnic group that is probably underserved on a larger scale than African-American students here is Latino students. That’s huge, and I think that’s something that Wooster absolutely does not pay any attention to. Those students get very little attention and very little support. … They’re just kind of out to fend for themselves.”
“Our administrators, our faculty, our staff, everyone — and students — have to be mindful that everybody’s background is different,” said Hammonds. “Everybody’s life experiences that they come from are different. We have to figure out how we accommodate those, how we support those differences, nurture those differences and understand that this is an educational institution so [it’s] a great place for us to learn from those experiences. That’s the hard part. It’s hard work and we miss the mark a lot, but we get it in some places as well.”