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Michigan’s Black-white college graduation gap is one of largest in nation

Tiaunna Bradley’s degree from Wayne State University will be in public health, but her years on the Detroit campus have also taught her lessons in racial disparities.

Bradley is beating the odds. She is on track to graduate from Wayne State in the 2020-21 school year, a feat that only 1 in every 5 Black students at the school accomplishes, according to the most recent national data available. By contrast, white students who step on campus are more than twice as likely as Black students to leave with a degree. 

“I was aware of the gap,” Bradley told Bridge, but “I didn’t think it would be that enormous.”  

The story is similar across the state. A Bridge analysis of national data reveals that Black college students at Michigan’s public universities graduated on average at a rate that is 22 percentage points lower than their white peers who entered freshman orientation with them — one of the largest racial graduation gaps in the nation.


Michigan’s Black-white graduation gap is almost double the national average of 12 percentage points. While other states are narrowing that gap, Michigan’s gap is growing. Between 1998 and 2000, the average graduation gap at the state’s public universities was 18 percentage points; a decade later it was 20 percentage points. And by 2017-19, the gap had grown to 22 points.

The disparity hobbles Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s efforts to increase the percentage of Michigan adults with college degrees, and lays bare a racial economic gap made worse by a pandemic.

Michigan’s Black-white graduation gap — which is wider than the national average at 11 of the state’s public universities — raises troubling questions about educational and economic equity at a time when conversations about systemic racism have led to protests across Michigan and the nation.

“If we continue to uphold, maintain and build systems that are not equitable, we can't expect equity on the tail end,” says Ryan Fewins-Bliss, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, an organization that works to increase college enrollment among low-income and first-generation students.

“We've come a long way in Michigan and in the country, trying to unpackage that, but like we've seen with everything else in the country, especially in these last few weeks, it's really hard to deconstruct the racist nature in our DNA.” 

A wide gap, a heavy toll

Michigan’s public colleges have the third highest Black-white graduation gap in the nation, according to a Bridge analysis of federal data. The states with wider gaps, Kansas (26 percentage points) and South Dakota (24 points), have a far lower percentage of Black residents than Michigan. 

Not all states have staggering racial grad gaps. In Georgia, the gap is 2.9 points; Florida, 2.5 points. In North Carolina, Black students graduate at a rate 2 percentage points higher than their white peers. All three of those states have similar or larger percentages of Black residents as Michigan.


Bridge used rolling three-year averages of graduation rates for 13 of Michigan’s 15 public universities to look for trends. Bridge limited its examination to public universities with an average of at least 100 Black undergraduate degree-seeking students in their student body, which excluded Lake Superior State and Michigan Technological University. 

Graduation rates are a lagging indicator of university accomplishments, and may not reflect more recent efforts to address the issue. The most recent six-year graduation rates, reported in 2019, reflect the percentage of students who earned degrees who first enrolled in the 2012-13 school year. 

Despite these limitations, graduation rates offer a window into what appears to be systemic struggles by Michigan universities to address a staggeringly wide gap in campus racial equity.

The analysis revealed that racial gaps in students earning bachelor’s degrees within six years of stepping foot on campus vary widely among the 13 public universities Bridge analyzed — from an 11-point gap at the University of Michigan campuses in Ann Arbor and Flint, to a 34 point gap at Wayne State University.


Those yawning disparities can have enormous economic implications for individual students, and for the state as a whole.

Research shows that obtaining a college degree is one of the best paths for social mobility and opportunity. Michigan residents with a high school diploma earned $23,300 in median annual wages five years after graduation, whereas those with a bachelor's degree earned $51,200, according to data from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information. That is nearly a 120 percent increase in annual earnings by having a bachelor's degree. 

‘Bad on top of bad’

For African Americans who make it into Michigan’s colleges, their  graduation rates are impacted by a litany of systemic issues, from income (Black families in Michigan, on average, earn less than their white neighbors, making college costs a heavier lift), to urban, majority-Black K-12 school districts where the average student, based on test scores, is not as prepared for college as the typical student attending suburban schools. And for some there’s the added  challenge of being a first-generation college student.  

For example, college readiness as measured by SAT results in the 2018-2019 school year, showed Black students in Michigan performing worse than any other racial subgroup. Just 9 percent of Michigan Black high school juniors were considered “college ready” as measured by scores on various subjects of the SAT; white high school juniors were almost four times more likely to be considered college ready (40 percent).  

For students who are Black and economically disadvantaged, only 6 percent met the benchmark for college readiness, compared to 20 percent of white economically disadvantaged students. 

Some of these discrepancies can be traced through several layers of Michigan’s education system.

“Our K-12 systems are very, very segregated and have been built by the same people who built our higher education systems,” said Fewins-Bliss of the Michigan College Access Network. “So everything that leads to the pathway into the higher-ed institution has also been built in the same manner. So it's just bad on top of bad on top of bad.”

Michigan also ranked the third-worst of 41 states for Black student enrollment at four-year institutions in 2016, according to a report by The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C-based nonprofit. Only 8.7 percent of undergraduate students at Michigan's 15 public universities were Black in 2016, even though African-Americans make up 17 percent of state residents.

Those African Americans who do enroll in college graduate at lower rates than their white classmates.

How much Michigan’s Black-white graduation gap is related to income rather than race is unclear. The median household income of Black families ($34,503) is just 56 percent that of white families ($61,331) — the 10th largest gap in the nation.

Low-income families are more likely to struggle with the costs of four-year colleges.

Data are not publicly available that compares graduation rates of Michigan Black and white college students with similar family incomes, but data does show that low-income Michigan high school grads also drop out of college at high rates. Among 2011-12 Michigan high school graduates, 39 percent of economically disadvantaged grads who enrolled in a two- or four-year college didn’t earn a degree of any kind within six years. 

Among Black students, 47 percent enrolled in college but didn’t earn a degree within six years.

Other states have closed grad gaps 

Other states with large Black-white income gaps have found ways to close the racial graduation gap. North Carolina has a $23,000 gap between median household incomes of Black and white families, yet African Americans complete bachelor’s degrees at the state’s public universities at a higher rate than white students.

The origin of these gaps do not stem from the students themselves, said Kristen Renn, associate dean of undergraduate studies for student success research at Michigan State University. 

“It's not the students who need fixing, it's the institution that gets in their way” she said.  

For example, Renn said MSU was able to identify several areas in which it can better support students who were historically excluded from higher education — including, rethinking developmental mathematics programs, its student advising structure, and financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

The good news is that overall college graduation rates have risen at many institutions in the past decade. Even so, the gap has often stayed the same, with white and Black grad rates showing the same upward slope.

“Colleges have gotten better at graduating students, which is good,” said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at EdTrust, which advocates for closing opportunity gaps in education, “But the gap between groups have not closed and in some cases have widened.” 

Step one: admitting a problem

“We've come a long way in just the concept of admitting there's a problem,” said Fewins-Bliss. “Seven years ago I was working in communities and with institutions who would claim that there were no problems (with the racial graduation gap), very few communities and very few institutions now claim that.” 

MSU’s Renn acknowledged that Michigan State was one of those institutions. Twenty years ago, MSU’s graduation gap was nearly 25 points. It’s dropped slightly since then, to a 19 percentage point average gap from 2017 to 2019.

Renn said change only happened when people began talking about the issue openly. 

“We were not proud of that gap historically,” Renn said. “And we really had to get more comfortable in talking about it publicly. And there were always particularly Black faculty and staff and strong allies naming this, trying to talk about it, trying to keep it at the front of discussion, but it wasn't really.”

Higher education’s culture and environment can be unwelcoming to Black students, said Ed Trust’s Jones.

A 2017 study by the UPP Foundation and The Social Market Foundation, showed that among the factors impacting Black student graduation, social and cultural issues are a major obstacle. Things like “lack of cultural connection to the curriculum, difficulties making friends with students from other ethnicities, or difficulties forming relationships with academic staff due to the differences in background and customs,” which can all impact student success.

A 2015 study by the Jed Foundation, which surveyed about 1,500  freshman students, showed massive gaps in the perception of college along racial lines. White students were 13 percent more likely than Black students to feel more emotionally prepared for college. 

African-American students were more likely to say college is not living up to their expectations. Or to feel like “everyone has college figured out but them.” They also tended to keep their feelings about the difficulty they experienced to themselves.

A Michigan native, Jones, of Ed Trust, has a doctorate. But she recalls thinking about dropping out as an African-American undergrad at Central Michigan University.  

“I am a success story. I'm [part of] the 1 percent [of Americans] that has a PhD. I'm a first-generation college student, a Black woman,” Jones said. “But the question is, at what cost? Because of what I had to endure related to racism in the classroom, outside the classroom, in the dorms, … I questioned almost daily. Was it worth it?”

Bradley, the Wayne State senior, said she remembers how a white professor treated her differently than other students. 

“I was choosing minors and I was getting more information about a minor. And I think [the white professor] had a preconceived notion that I wasn't as academically astute, so she was talking in a harsh manner to me before she saw my record.”

Bradley says when the professor saw her academic standing, her advanced math classes and history of AP coursework, “her whole demeanor changed.”

Bradley said the experience provides an example of perceived racial bias on campus, and raises questions about employment and faculty. 

“You can't really serve individuals if you don’t understand their experience or try to understand,” Bradley said.

Some gaps widening while others narrow

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor has cut its gap almost in half in the past decade.

Among those who entered U-M as freshmen in 2011-13, the graduation gap between Black and white students was 11 points (82 percent of Black students graduate within six years compared to 93 percent of white students.) A decade earlier, the gap was 19 points: (71 percent of Black students, 90 percent of white students).  

However, only 4 percent of U-M Ann Arbor’s students in fall 2018 were Black, the smallest percentage across the 13 Michigan public universities analyzed. At the state universities with the largest percentage of Black students, the Black-white grad gap is wider.  

Eastern Michigan University has the largest share of Black students among the state’s public universities, at 18 percent. There, the Black-white grad gap is 27 percentage points. At Wayne State, where 13 percent of the undergraduate student body are Black, the gap is 34 points. 

“Where you see places where the graduation rates are the lowest for Black and brown students, are institutions that are admitting more of them,” Jones said, “[but] because of resources or strategy, they're not graduating them overall.” 

In fact, Eastern Michigan University has seen steady growth in its graduation gap, growing from 11 percentage points 20 years ago, to 27 points  in 2019. 

Similar grad gap increases can be found at Grand Valley State University and Saginaw Valley State University. 

Impact of affirmative action ban

Several experts who spoke to Bridge argued that graduation gaps are worsened in Michigan because of legal barriers that bar schools from taking race-focused actions. One critical example is the state outlawing affirmative action in college admissions in Michigan, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014, which made race-focused support and recruitment programs illegal. 

Michigan is among nine states that have banned affirmative action. 

While the main impact of Michigan’s affirmative action ban was on admissions, the ban also made universities shy away from on-campus programs aimed at helping specific racial groups.

“There are a lot of questions about could you … support [programs] for Black men,” Renn said. “There are a lot of questions and worry about doing that (at) different public universities in the state.” 

Jones said she worries that long-term success across Michigan will be a challenge while affirmative action policies continue to be banned. “Research suggests that if you design initiatives and policies that are race neutral, color blind, it might be successful in other things, but it's certainly not [going] to be successful at closing racial equity gaps.”

Looking to Georgia for answers

But that doesn't mean success isn’t possible. Some schools around the country had found ways to close this gap.

Georgia has one of the smallest gaps in graduation between white and Black students, at about 3 percentage points. That is due in part to the work of Georgia State University, which has repeatedly made national headlines for graduating Black students at rates equal to and higher than the student body as a whole.

In 2018-2019, the Black graduation rate was 57 percent, while the white student graduation rate was 53 percent. Twenty years ago, when Georgia State first began addressing this issue, the white student graduation rate was 26 and the Black rate was even worse: 18 percent. 

Georgia State’s Black students have been graduating at a rate equal to or higher than its white students since 2005. 

The key was focusing on a few programs that target students in danger of dropping out.

Georgia State critically looked at its overall graduation rates about 12 years ago, not because officials saw massive gaps fall along racial lines, but because their student population overall was graduating at a low rate. At the time, some faculty wanted to look externally at K-12 education as the source of the problem, said Timothy Renick, senior vice president for student success at Georgia State. 

“[Fixing K-12 education,] that's a very long-term solution… we would have a lot more control over our own operations,” Renick explained. “The way we admit students, the way we advise students, the way we support them in their classes and tutor them and so forth.”

So Georgia State developed several initiatives that have since been adopted by schools across the country. The school created: 

  • Retention grants given to seniors who are close to graduating who face fines or tuition or other money obstacles they can’t afford to pay. 
  • Predictive analytics systems that help advisors track and intervene with students who may be running into academic peril 
  • And learning communities that provide mentorship and community to students. 

Variations of these programs have been adopted in a few of Michigan's public universities — particularly at Wayne State and MSU.

At Michigan State, about 8 percent of students are Black. Since the Black-white grad gap hit a peak of 24 points in 2014, the gap has narrowed modestly, a trend Renn credits in part to its predictive analysis program.

Predictive analytics use student data and trends to predict and track students as an academic adviser might. The software is built to detect when a student is lagging in grades, not enrolled in classes that count toward their degree, or is in an ill-fitting major. It flags students for school administrators and counselors to follow up and provide resources. In sum, it identifies trends that signal a student is at risk of dropping out or falling behind. 

MSU also has piloted a retention grant program inspired by Georgia State, where graduating seniors who ran out of scholarship money, or have small holds on their student account, can get small grants to get them to graduation.  

In 2019, MSU’s Black-white graduation gap of 19 points was a 10-year low, but still far above the national average.

Wayne State has received national acclaim for improving abysmal graduation rates in recent years. Grad rates for African-American students have nearly tripled in the past decade, from 8 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2019, an increase the university says is the result of improved academic counseling. Still, the graduation gap at Wayne is the largest in the state.

“[Universites] have to see the recruitment and retention of all students, but very specifically of students that we have traditionally locked out of the system, as their mission,” said Fewins-Bliss, “as core to the democratic underpinnings of why higher ed was developed to begin with.”

Bradley, the WSU student, said she plans to do her part. 

The Black-white graduation gap “just makes me want to [earn a degree] harder,” she said. “I want to be a contributor to a higher percentage of Black students graduating.” 

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