COLLEGE PARK – With the number of African American undergraduates at the University of Maryland College Park at its highest point ever, officials are turning their attention to keeping black students in school.
For years, the university has focused on recruiting African Americans. Black students make up a record high 13 percent of today’s undergraduates, and this year’s freshman class in 16 percent African American — the highest percentage of any class in the school’s history.
Officials are encouraged by the growth, but many remain disappointed by the number of those students who leave the school before getting their degrees.
Only 16 percent of black students in the class of 1990 graduated after four years. That compares to 40 percent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 25 percent at the University of California at Berkeley and 37 percent at the University of Michigan.
“Universities like College Park have to come face to face with the reality that to have an impact, diversity programs must deal with retention,” said Mary Cothran, director of the campus’ Office of Multi-Ethnic Education.
Cothran, who is black, came to College Park in 1974 to get a graduate degree. She returned in 1982 to recruit minority undergraduates. Now she leads the office charged with identifying high risk African-American students and creating programs to keep them in school.
Working in undergraduate admissions in the late 1980s, Cothran said she “saw we were bringing all these students to the university — but we were not keeping them.”
Her efforts include a yearly conference on retention, minority leadership and mentoring programs, an annual minority job fair and pre-college prep programs. Each year, new programs are developed to raise the College Park’s African-American retention rate, which has been slowly creeping forward.
Why do African-American students leave college?
Experts say some reasons are the same as those of the population at large: inadequate preparation, economic factors, the value a student’s family places on education.
Others are specific to black students: discrimination, lack of social identity on campus, culture shock.
Reginald Wilson, a senior fellow at the American Council on Education, said that it would help all students, regardless of race, if colleges recognized that “many students enter college with limitations” because of inadequate high school training.
There is a need for remedial help, mentoring and study programs at most major universities, Wilson said. But the programs that keep students are the ones that give them a since of self worth.
The best retention programs, Wilson said, are programs that assimilate minorities into the greater student body, including them with other students who want to achieve.
“Instead of talking about bringing them up to the college level, they talk about excelling,” he said.
Sen. Decatur Trotter, D-Prince George’s, focuses his often strong criticism of the university on its minority hiring and retention rates. Trotter doesn’t believe College Park provides enough black role models.
“From the conversations I’ve had with many people who have attended the University of Maryland,” he said, “many of them feel out of place.”
And students feel out of place, he charged, because the university is not interested in “making diversity a priority.”
University spokesman Roland King sharply disagreed. “By any standard there is an unwavering commitment to diversity at this university,” King said in response to Trotter’s comments. “We are a national model of diversity that works.”
Beverly Coles-Henderson, a former NAACP education chief now at Howard University, sees College Park as a leader in diversity. But once African Americans enroll, she stressed, the issue shifts — from whether they are encouraged to apply to whether they will feel comfortable and welcome. Most college campuses, she added, are not willing to take that extra step.
College educators “want everybody to love each other, but they don’t want to [do the work it takes] to have the programs,” Coles-Henderson said.
Coles-Henderson said affirmative action programs that bring minority professors and administrators, such as those that brought two top deans to College Park in the last year, create important role models for minority students.
“We’ve got to recommit ourselves and see diversity as an asset, not a threat,” she said. -30-