Dismayed by falling black graduate enrollment, U of M boosts recruitment efforts

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Robert Smith III, right, is a U grad student.
Robert Smith III, right, is a graduate student who is a Minnesota History Museum Fellow this summer. He attended an organizational meeting for the summer program on May 22, 2014, at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.
Nikki Tundel / MPR News

University of Minnesota officials are expressing concern over the declining number of African-Americans attending graduate school there.

Since 2010, the number of blacks in the U of M's graduate and professional programs has dropped more than 15 percent to 428.

Blacks now make up 2.7 percent of all master's and Ph.D. students, down from 2.9 percent four years ago. The drop has been steeper among professional programs such as law and medicine -- from 3 percent to 2.3 percent.

Drop worse than national average

To address the decline university leaders have boosted recruitment and retention efforts to increase the number of blacks who earn master's, doctoral and professional degrees.

But they say they're at a loss to explain why fewer blacks are studying there.

"That worries us," said Sally Kohlstedt, acting vice provost and dean of graduate education. "Across the country, there has been a drop in African-Americans. But we seem to be dropping even more rapidly than at the national level. And that raises a whole lot of questions."

University officials say some of the drop may be due to an overall decline in graduate enrollment of 9 percent in the past five years. But the U of M's share of black graduate students is about a quarter of that usually found around the country.

According to the Council of Graduate Schools, on average, just over 10 percent of graduate students in doctoral and master's programs nationwide are black.

U of M is second to last among 13 campuses in a consortium of mostly Big Ten universities, where the black presence in graduate and professional programs peaks at 4.6 percent at Michigan State. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln placed last.

Such numbers are discouraging to university officials who have tried to increase the diversity on campus.

"At a minimum, we shouldn't be slipping," Assistant Vice Provost Belinda Cheung said.

Higher-education officials and students say having more African-American graduate students would not only strengthen the black community's economic well-being, it would build the nation's research muscle and add important minority perspectives to research in all fields.

"This could be critical for the U.S.," said Robert Sowell, a vice president at the Council of Graduate Schools.

Robert Smith III
Robert Smith III is a History Museum Fellow this summer working on a Diversity Profile (Dashboard) of the Minnesota Historical Society. He attended an organizational meeting May 22, 2014, at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.
MPR News/ Nikki Tundel

At the U of M, the problem is two-fold: the university appears to have trouble both recruiting greater numbers of black students and keeping them in the program once they arrive.

By various measures -- the number of applications, the percentage of potential students the U of M admits or the number of students who finally decide to attend -- black enrollment is flat, Kohlstedt said.

Two out of three applicants this year came from within the state -- usually from the Twin Cities.

The lack of African-American students is hardly confined to its graduate school ranks. The black undergraduate population at U of M also has dropped - from 5 percent of the student body in 2010 to 4.6 percent this year.

"The U seems to struggle with recruiting African-Americans at the undergraduate level -- and getting those students to graduate," said Robert Smith III, a black graduate student in the American Studies program. "If that doesn't happen, it's going to be even tougher to have high graduate African-American enrollment."

Multiple barriers

Academic performance and money are two barriers, university administrators say.

The gap in performance on standardized tests between black students and their white counterparts has kept many African-Americans from entering college and earning degrees.

Many blacks come from low-income families and are first-generation students. Many are averse to taking out students loans, said Patricia Jones Whyte, director of the U's graduate-education diversity office.

If the U of M wants to compete with other universities for those students, she said, it needs to offer stronger financial support packages -- such as financial aid, graduate teaching and research assistantships.

University student regent Abdul Omari, an African-American doctoral student in comparative and international development education, agreed. "I knew that with all the schools I applied for, if I didn't get full funding, I just wasn't going," he said.

African-American students who spoke to MPR News gave their departments high marks for the way they were recruited -- noting the personal touch, access to faculty and tours around town.

However, they say the state -- and by extension the U itself -- has a reputation of having a cold climate, a white demographic and large educational and financial disparities between its white and black populations.

History Museum fellows
Chris Taylor, the Minnesota Historical Society Diversity Outreach Program Manager, leads a meeting of the History Museum Fellows on May 22, 2014.
MPR News/ Nikki Tundel

Compared to the rest of the state, Minneapolis has a relatively sizeable African-American population of 18.6 percent. But that figure isn't entirely relevant for many potential students, said Tia-Simone Gardner, a graduate student in gender, women and sexuality studies.

Much of the African-American community doesn't live near the campus, she said, and doesn't mix with it.

The university, she said, "seems disconnected from communities of color in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro."

When Gardner recently talked to some black students at a St. Paul charter high school, about college, she couldn't help but notice that "they're not thinking about the University of Minnesota."

Gardner and other black graduate students said the U needs have a higher proportion of black faculty -- one of the key things they said they look for when they consider a graduate program.

In 2013, the university reported that 2.1 percent of its faculty was African-American -- down from 2.5 percent in 2009.

Kohlstedt also notes that black students may be dropping out of the graduate and professional programs in disproportionate numbers.

A May 2013 report notes the six-year completion rate for African-Americans who enrolled in a U of M doctoral program in 2006 is 28 percent - far below the 47 percent success rate for Ph.D. students on average.

University targets "incremental" improvements

Omari is encouraged that university officials have at least acknowledged the problem.

"Some of the steps that are being taken to publicly and openly acknowledge that we are struggling is a huge step," he said.

To boost recruitment, the U of M is beefing up summer research programs that expose minority undergraduates to life as a grad student at the university, Kohlstedt said.

It will use a search service to target students taking the Graduate Record Examination and recruit them more intensively. Whyte said she's working on ways departments can improve communication with potential students.

Whyte said financial support "is still an issue," but said the U of M has increased the budget of a graduate diversity fellowship by $100,000 so it can support 25 students instead of 23.

As a long-term step, Kohlstedt said university officials are working on ways to help increase the number of African-American students who go to college.

"How do we let students -- even in middle school -- begin to have a vision of what they could really do?" she said.

To help retain current graduate students, for the first time in almost a decade, the university will have a full-time staffer devoted to supporting minority students in various aspects of academic and professional life, Whyte said.

Kohlstedt said matching the city's African-American population probably unrealistic, and that the U doesn't have a target number in mind. She said university officials wants to make "incremental" improvement each year and meet or exceed the average progress of peer institutions.

But Omari said he'd like the university's African-American graduate population to be more representative of the local population.

"We need to be shooting for a population that represents -- and looks like -- the city that we're in," he said.