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Wayne State University - Office of the Provost

Dear faculty and staff,

I want to make you aware of two new higher education reports, particularly in light of next week’s Higher Learning Commission accreditation meetings. One report is not good, though the other is quite positive. 

The first report, from The Education Trust, is entitled “A Look at Black Student Success: Identifying Top- and Bottom-Performing Institutions.” It was released today and was described in an Inside Higher Education article.  

The report examines graduation rates for black students and the completion gap between black and white students at nonspecialized public and private nonprofit institutions, as well as four-year, for-profit institutions.

The report describes a weighted three-year average for FTIACs over 2012, 2013, and 2014 data.  It shows an average graduation rate of 11.1% for black students and a gap of 33.2% between black and white students. The data appear to be correct and consistent with our Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange information.

As the President stated in his university address last September, our performance gap is an embarrassment for our university, and we have a moral imperative to make it right.  And while this report raises legitimate concerns about our performance disparities, I want to balance what you see in this report with some information this report doesn’t contain on progress we’re making in closing the gap.

In the two years following this report (2015 and 2016, which are not yet available publicly), our black graduation rate rose to 12.3% and 17.2%.  Additionally, the black-white achievement gap fell to 32% for FY 2016.  

The university has a number of initiatives in place to address the performance gaps that should soon bear fruit.

On page 9, the report highlights the use of data to improve student outcomes.  We have embraced this approach wholeheartedly.  In particular, through our partnership with the Education Advisory Board, we are now able to identify student needs earlier and with greater precision.  Our AdvisingWorks platform, which will be deployed next month, will permit advisors to identify students and their needs and reach out to them more proactively.  Additionally, StudentWorks is a mobile app that helps students navigate college before they even start and uses data to help students know exactly what steps they need to take to be successful in college.

We are using data to improve teaching and learning as well.   We have identified classes that have either high DFWI (D, F, Withdrawal, Incomplete) rates or disparities in student outcomes, or are most foundational for student success.  Faculty teams are currently making focused improvements in some of these classes as part of our Gateway Course Initiative.

We have many academic programs that support black students, including our Academic Pathways for Excellence Scholars Program (APEX), the Rising Scholars Program, Comerica Scholars, the Build Program, and more. In order to reach students who have not yet been served by one of these programs, we are launching the Warrior VIP program, which will provide a community of support for students with talent and potential who can benefit from extra help. 

Recognizing that the performance gap begins before students even apply to college, Wayne State will begin working with the Horatio Williams Foundation and Frederic Douglass Academy (an all-black male school) this summer to help with SAT/ACT prep for college.

I think it’s important to consider the broader picture of performance disparities not just at Wayne State, but at numerous other institutions as well, including K-12 systems.

Education Week's Recent “Quality Counts” report provides a snapshot of how well students’ needs are met in our K-12 schools.  The K-12 Achievement Index examines 18 distinct achievement measures related to reading and math performance, high school graduation rates, and the results of Advanced Placement exams. The index assigns equal weight to current levels of performance and changes over time. It also places an emphasis on equity, by examining both poverty-based achievement gaps and progress in closing those gaps.   Michigan receives an F for Academic Performance and ranks 39th in the nation.  We receive a D- for change over time and rank 48th in the nation.  We fare slightly better on average for equity between poor students and other students, receiving a grade of B and ranking 14th in the nation.

I also believe it’s important to note that 30% of the bottom 10 schools on the list are from Michigan, and Michigan is the only state represented on the list that explicitly prohibits educational remedies—including scholarships—specifically for black students as a result of Prop 2/Section 26.  Thus our work is harder—though not impossible.

The second report I want to share with you was published by the New York Times about a month ago.  This interactive report ranks more than 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities as engines of social mobility.  In particular, the study reveals how well universities take students from lower-income families and propel them into the upper part of the wealth distribution.

When compared to the other Michigan public universities, Wayne State was by far number one at mobility, coming in at 11.3%.  (For comparison’s sake, the mobility rate for the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor is 5.6%, and Lake Superior State University’s is 8.6%.)  Even when you stack up Wayne State against our peers in other states, we come out ahead of most. (Virginia Commonwealth University was 10.8%, and the University of Cincinnati was 8.6%.) 

This means that more than any other Michigan public university, and more than many of our peer institutions across the country, Wayne State is delivering on its promise of improved opportunity and a better life for some of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

I do not send this note to downplay the seriousness of Wayne State’s black-white graduation gap; rather, I think it important to contextualize the data in the Education Trust’s simplified report.  We have much work to do, but the trend, I believe, is pointing in the right direction, and we have excellent programs and initiatives in place to address the gap. 


Keith E. Whitfield, Provost

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