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Once embarrassed by its graduation numbers, Wayne State becomes a model

This is a story celebrating the public university with the lowest graduation rate in the state of Michigan.

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Wayne State has taken its lumps over the years. Less than a decade ago, about one in four students earned a degree within six years. More alarming: Fewer than one in 10 black students who enrolled at the Detroit campus left with a four-year degree within that time. For black men, the rate was one in 14.

Related: At Wayne State, easy to get in, difficult to get out

Since then, the chances of Wayne State University students leaving the Detroit campus with a degree has almost doubled to 45 percent. And the African-American graduation rate has tripled to 26 percent.

And while still trailing Michigan’s other public universities in graduation rate, Wayne State is garnering national attention for its turnaround, raising hopes that the lessons learned on the urban campus can be applied to improve grad rates of minorities, low-income and first-generation college students across the state.

“If students suffer, the nation suffers,” said Monica Brockmeyer, WSU’s  senior associate provost for student success. “If students thrive, the nation will too. That’s not a value, that’s a law of gravity. And universities are waking up to this.”

Lower college attainment and college graduation rates for African-American students are not unique to Wayne State. For a variety of reasons, including poverty, black college students tend to graduate at lower rates than their white and Asian classmates across the nation.

Even so, the past graduation numbers at Wayne State, located in a city with overwhelming poverty and low-performing public schools, stood out.

The six-year graduation rate – those who earn a degree within six years of stepping onto campus – was just 26 percent at Wayne State in 2012, a figure representing students who first enrolled in 2006. The graduation rate jumped to 45 percent for students enrolling in 2011, according to data from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information. (Wayne State uses slightly different data from the National Center for Education Statistics which shows a graduation rate of 47 percent. For consistency with graduation rates of other public universities, Bridge is using data from CEPI.)

That’s still significantly below average for all Michigan public universities, which, combined, graduate about seven in 10 students within six years, according to data from Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information. But that 70-percent figure isn’t budging, while Wayne State’s graduation rate is taking off.

“People are starting to ask me to travel nationally to talk about what we’re doing,” Brockmeyer said. “But there’s not one thing we’re doing. It’s a lot of changes in process and culture.”

Grad rates at Michigan public universities

The chances you’ll earn a degree within six years of enrolling vary  between Michigan’s public universities. While Wayne State remains on the low end for graduation rates of African-American and white students, the university is catching up.

Wayne State45%26%52%26%
U-M Flint55%44%56%12%
Saginaw Valley State56%31%61%30%
Lake Superior State60%56%66%10%
Northern Michigan60%42%64%22%
Eastern Michigan61%51%67%16%
Ferris State62%42%66%24%
U-M Dearborn64%47%69%22%
Western Michigan68%54%71%17%
Central Michigan72%54%81%27%
Grand Valley State76%72%78%6%
Michigan Tech81%70%83%13%
Michigan State87%77%91%14%
University of Michigan92%87%95%8%


More counselors, quicker intervention

Wayne State hired 45 more academic counselors, doubling its staff. Those counselors today have access to much more information about students, Brockmeyer said.

“We follow a coordinated care model you’d see in health care.” Brockmeyer said. “We have general communications to support all students and more intense communication with students who need it. We look at changes in grade point average, looking for students with rising risks” of dropping out. A student whose scores drop at midterms is likely to be contacted by a counselor with offers of academic support.

The school implemented an intensive counselor training service to better understand how to spot students who need intervention. Campus officials from offices ranging from the financial aid to counseling to the bursar’s office meet every two weeks to pore over student data, looking for ways to prop up students who in the past would have fallen through the cracks.

A new course for first-semester freshmen uses brain science research to teach students how to take notes and manage their time.

And the college reshuffled its financial aid to focus more on students from low- and moderate-income families. About a third of incoming freshmen attend Wayne tuition-free, based on need – Wayne’s version of the more ballyhooed Go Blue Guarantee at the University of Michigan.

Brandy Johnson, executive director of the Michigan College Access Network, has been impressed with Wayne State’s turnaround.

“Wayne State University has committed to a transformation that prioritizes student success and degree completion -- and the students are reaping the benefits by minimizing debt and maximizing employment outcomes,” Johnson said. 

The Association of Public and Land Grant Universities recently named Wayne State the winner of the Project Degree Completion award, citing its grad rate turnaround.

“This has to do with the role of higher education as a whole as a public good,” Brockmeyer said. “As the demand for a better educated workforce increases, America won’t be able to compete” without getting degrees into more hands.

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