How UA’s strategic plans will continue to saddle students with debt instead of degrees in the name of economic sustainability
an op-ed by Chris Horne
“I can remember my dad saying to me, ‘If you’ve got it, people will know. You don’t have to talk about it.’ In fact, he had some pretty colorful expressions for people who thought too highly of themselves. He used to say about such a person: ‘He’s all hat, no cattle.’”
– Dr. Scott Scarborough, from “My First 100 Days”
For all the financial issues President Scott Scarborough inherited from the Board of Trustees and the previous administration, there is one problem they have seemingly, at least publicly, ignored: The University of Akron is not good at graduating its students.
Only 41 percent of all first-time, full-time students graduate within six years, according to the US Department of Education. That’s the fourth lowest rate among the 26 large public universities in the Great Lakes Region, which includes Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Those who do graduate from the University of Akron can only expect to make about $34,800 annually ten years after starting college, which is the lowest average among the Great Lakes universities.
If you’re a student, a parent, an alumni, educator or concerned community member, you know this isn’t good news. If you’re a black student, or someone who cares about their well-being, the news gets worse. Much, much worse. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 12 percent of the black students who enrolled at the University of Akron in 2008 graduated by 2014. That’s actually half the university’s six-year rate posted by the cohort graduating in 2002.
This, the university’s “academic debt,” you might hope, would be the thing they would address first. But almost everything you need to know about Scarborough’s vision for the University of Akron is that it’s his goal to increase enrollment to 31,000 students in five years. It all flows from there: Budget cuts, lay-offs, rebranding, outsourcing, cutting baseball but leaving football virtually untouched, the Grand Entrance and Buchtel Big Screen, hiring Dr. Todd Rickel and the Toledo Three, Gen Ed classes, the Corps of Cadets, international expansion, etc., etc. The answer is always enrollment.
Angel Poole, who is the President of UA’s Black United Students, takes the microphone from Dr. John Queener, who she playfully chastises for calling her April, and tells the crowd in the Simmons Hall auditorium how severely the sudden and unexpected budget cuts to the Office of Multicultural Development have diminished the academic support she was receiving. It’s clear that media reports about the closing of the Multicultural Center failed to take into account that what was being lost was far more than programming and events.
The fourth-year English major talks about what OMD once was from 2007 to 2012 when it had eight full-time, certified staff members running educational, advising and social programs for the 13 percent of UA’s students who are black or African American. Then she described the fall, the paring down that began under former UA President Luis Proenza. Even that, she said, was better than what black students have now at the university.
“It bothers me knowing that I’m attending a university that doesn’t make me feel like they care whether I graduate or not,” Angel said.
She’s preaching to the choir. Heads nod. Others agreed out loud. For almost two hours, she’s followed by a stream of speakers—primarily students, some on the agenda and others who came up during the open mic to express their opinions. Generally, they each echo her concerns: the graduation rate for black students is way too low and the university is doing too little to reverse it.
The thing is, as bad as it is for black students in general, black male students face a steeper climb to graduation. For the 2006-07 academic year, the first-year retention rate for African American males was 20 percentage points lower than the rates for all first-year students.
Starting in October 2011, Dr. Queener, who is an Associate Professor of Education at UA and leads the United Forum of Black Faculty, Staff and Administration, conducted a two-year climate study on 82 African American males taking classes over 22 different majors at the university. The results were included in a report to the Knight Foundation, which had given the university $425,000 to support OMD’s “Rising to the Occasion” program as part of an initiative for black male engagement.
The research found several themes in the perspective black males have of the university, including: A lack of black representation among professors, administrators and other role models on campus; a lack of institutional support, like the difference it makes to have black advisers; and prejudice in the socio-political dynamic on campus.
One respondent in the study said, “So when I go into the Honors College, you can imagine some of the looks I get. I even got asked, ‘Are you a student here?’ and I have my ID on and everything. Whenever you put race, gender, age stereotype on what you believe success looks like, you alienate people, and I get that from this institution but not from everybody.”
The United Forum, he said, is focused on how the trustee-approved budget cuts and layoffs have affected the recruitment, retention and graduation of African American students.
When President Scarborough says he aspires for the University of Akron to be “more than Harvard,” he doesn’t mean that UA will graduate more students than Harvard because they are far more selective with admissions—at Harvard, only 6 percent of applicants get in, compared to Akron at 96 percent.
Most likely, he also doesn’t mean UA will spend more on instruction per student ($8,367) than Harvard. In fact, Harvard spends more per student on instruction a year ($47,083) than UA graduates can expect to make annually 10 years after they start school ($34,800).
Currently, some of the categories where Akron is “more than Harvard” are bad news. At UA, it means low-income students pay more a year ($15,408) than low-income students pay at Harvard ($3,897), and it means the average student leaves UA with significantly more federal debt ($26,812) than at Harvard ($6000).
And if the university is only graduating, over the course of six years, 41 percent of the first-time, full-time students who enroll—a number the federal government says makes up 71 percent of the student population—that means the university’s economic model is built on the backs of students who are more likely to leave UA with debt instead of a degree.
Worse still, this hurts the community’s most vulnerable too because 41 percent of UA students, according to the federal government, are considered low-income. They are people who go trying to improve their financial situation and are the least capable of handling the $10,262 debt with which the average drop-out leaves the university.
Whether intentional or not, the president’s plan to increase enrollment—without a corresponding plan to support students academically, outside of the success coaching pilot—likely means that the graduation rate won’t improve, which means this problem will grow as enrollment does.
While the world celebrated the news that the LeBron James Family Foundation had arranged full tuition scholarships to the University of Akron for graduates of the star’s I Promise program, UA senior Joseph Gogins had a different reaction when he thinks about what the campus environment will be like in 2021 if the university doesn’t improve its support for black students.
“I think they’ll feel terrible. I think they will feel like they were scammed to come into this university. Because, all up to that point, they got the help that they needed to make it through school then they get here and they don’t have that same support,” he says.
It is exactly because the LeBron James Family Foundation provides so much support to the students in its mentoring program that Joseph thinks puts them in harm’s way as scholarship students at the university of Akron.
“I feel bad for these people because, on the surface, it looks like they’re getting a ‘free ride’–and anybody would jump at the opportunity to get a free education–but will they make it? Will they be able to maximize that opportunity?”
Joseph credits the Student African American Brotherhood with helping him make it through to his senior year. Now, as the group’s leader, he sees the reduction of academic support for black students at the university as a call for SAAB to carry the burden of trying to provide the help that used to come from the Office of Multicultural Development.
A senior information systems management major from Chicago, he says even that step isn’t enough because after some time, the students who know how to implement the support will graduate or move on from the university. Considering that, he says the group has even discussed canvassing the campus tours given to prospective students and pulling the black students aside to warn them about the current situation, asking them, “What do you expect as a black student at this university?”
He doesn’t mean the college parties or the athletics or campus amenities. He’s asking how they’ll do as students.