MU touts increased minority enrollment as retention rates lag

Scholarships for minorities have not increased since 2001.

As it has in past years, MU touted the 2010 freshman class as the most diverse ever. Yet, MU retains less minority students after their first year and even less graduate in six years than white students.

For the past eight years, black students had a six-year graduation rate at an average of 11.46 percentage points less than white students, according to the MU Regristrar's Office. Since 2001, retention rates of white students have been higher than those of black students for all except two years. The numbers hit their biggest disparity for that period in 2008, when white students were 9 percentage points higher. MU minority retention rates are higher than several Big 12 schools, but still are not equal to white students.

Black students are also the largest underrepresented group at MU, meaning the number of black students at MU is disproportionate to the number of black residents in Missouri.

In 2009 the national average six-year graduation rate for black students was 38.9 percent, according to the US Department of Education. MU's six-year graduation rate for black students was 58 percent in 2010. MU's rate is significantly higher than the national average but still falls well below the MU white student rate, 70.4 percent.

"I don't feel like it's always the university's fault because it also starts within high school," Legion of Black Collegians President Lisa White said. "It depends on whether communities shine a light on college being highly necessary."

Josh Travis, Missouri Students Association presidential candidate and junior, said he has spoken frequently this semester about the culture on MU's campus. Many students he spoke with see a sort of self-sustained segregation on campus.

"It's not always on the basis of race or ethnicity, one of the glaring ones is Greek vs. non-Greek," Travis said. "A lot of students feel marginalized when it comes to university traditions, particularly and most recently in mind, Homecoming."

Changes in measuring diversity
In 1981, percentages were all that mattered. A federal mandate required MU to increase African-American enrollment to mirror the state population of Missouri.

According to a 2009 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, this would mean 11.5 percent of students at MU would be African-American. That year, 6.1 percent of MU students reported their ethnicity as African-American.

But as the years have worn on, a series of supreme court cases have ruled both racial quota systems and racial proportion equivalencies unconstitutional and thus changed the way MU looks at diversity. In other words, MU can not admit certain students on lesser qualifications in order to to equalize racial distribution. All students admitted must be equally well-qualified for university study.

"It's important to understand that diversity in numbers is not necessarily sufficient," Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington said.

Worthington said although some still look at diversity with a mindset similar to that of the 1970s, diversity now means something bigger than fulfilling a quota.

"Because of that, I think there's a fair amount of controversy related to what should or shouldn't be done from every perspective," Worthington said.

He said MU focuses instead on creating an inclusive campus climate, keeping in mind campus diversity is often associated with positive academic outcomes.

When compared with the rest of the country, MU's retention rates are among the best in the country when comparing white retention rates to minority retention rates, Worthington said.

"That doesn't mean there's not still a problem and that there's not still work to be done," Worthington said.

Free Money vs. Retention
MU offers four types of scholarships targeted toward students of an underrepresented in higher education groups. The amount MU offers for each scholarship has not increased since 2001, with the exception of a study abroad travel voucher offered for two years. The total cost of tuition and required fees at MU for a full-time in-state student has increased by $717.20 since 2007, according to data gathered by the Missouri Department of Higher Education.

"What has been frustrating is that the cost of education, the cost of living -- all of those things continue to rise and financial aid stays stagnant," Travis said. He receives a Brooks Scholarship, one of the four scholarships offered.

Money is tight across campus, though. Since fiscal year 2001, the state has reduced its funding of MU's operating budget from a little more than 60 percent to 37 percent for the fiscal year 2011.

Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Ann Korschgen said minority student aid is helpful but not sufficient in attracting students to MU.

"We hope to increase scholarship offerings in the future through fund-raising but at the time, our scholarship budget is very tight given the increasing enrollment and the financial need of our students," Korschgen said in an e-mail.

The mystery in causality
For the first time this fall, MU will implement a new program to gain knowledge on why some students chose to continue their education at MU.

"As an institution, we've been going under a process of analyzing some of the data we do have more carefully, because there are a wide number of factors that influence a student's persistence to graduation," Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Jim Spain said.

MU will send a survey to students who are eligible to return to MU in the spring but have not registered.

"We're going to begin to ask our students who are leaving," Spain said.

A faculty member in the College of Education is developing the survey based on literature that has evaluated student success, Spain said.

"By better understanding why, then we can better develop programs and strategies on campus that are more supportive and provide a better infrastructure of student support than we presently have," Spain said.

Although minority student retention rates begin to indicate campus climate, the story is much larger.

"We don't admit students to the university with the assumption that it's acceptable that any percentage is not going to graduate," Worthington said.

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