Failure in Urban Universities

Kevin Carey wonders why pathetically low graduation rates are accepted -- even as lawmakers focus renewed attention on inner city public high schools.

October 14, 2008

As a resident of the District of Columbia, it's been fascinating to watch the ascendant rock star-dom of Michelle Rhee, the D.C. public schools chancellor. A 38-year old Harvard grad and single mother of two, she's been profiled in Newsweek, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, and featured on Charlie Rose. Her panel at the Democratic National Convention drew capacity crowds. All because she's trying to reform an urban school system legendary for incompetence, corruption, and failure. And she's not alone: Big city mayors across the country have seized control of their school systems in recent years, risking political capital on the premise that schools can serve predominantly low-income and minority students far better than they have in the past. Those schools and students have become the central K–12 education challenge of our time.

Washington’s public school system is not, however, the only public education institution in the city. There's another with very similar problems: deteriorating facilities, shrinking enrollment, rock-bottom graduation rates, and a troubled history rife with tales of mismanagement and worse. It's the University of the District of Columbia. But while the recent announcement of a new UDC president garnered respectful coverage in the local newspaper, it's a safe bet that Allen Sessoms -- a Yale-educated physics professor and former leader of Delaware State University and Queens College -- won't be making the national media rounds anytime soon. Urban higher education simply doesn't generate the urgency and attention directed to K–12, even though it faces many of the same challenges and educates many of the same students. This is a huge problem, and a quick look at graduation rates for the less selective public urban universities on the table below shows why:

City University Enrollment, Fall 2007 6-Year Graduation Rate Black 6-Year Graduation Rate Hispanic 6-Year Graduation Rate % of Students in Graduation Rate Data Transfer Out Rate
Chicago Chicago State U. 5,217 16% 16% 13% 30% 30%
Chicago Northeastern Illinois U. 10,285 19% 8% 17% 41% 37%
Washington U. of District of Columbia 5,137 19% 18% 17% 46% N/A
Denver Metropolitan State College 21,425 23% 18% 24% 38% 4%
El Paso U. of Texas at El Paso 16,769 29% 27% 28% 58% 33%
San Antonio U. of Texas at San Antonio 24,705 30% 28% 31% 65% N/A
Los Angeles California State U. at Los Angeles 16,046 31% 16% 29% 41% 42%

Indiana U.-Purdue U.

at Indianapolis

21,202 31% 26% 23% 93% N/A
Detroit Wayne State U. 21,145 32% 10% 20% 50% N/A
Memphis U. of Memphis 15,984 34% 27% 48% 55% 19%
Boston U. of Mass at Boston 10,008 35% 28% 37% 37% 5%
New York City CUNY City College 11,181 36% 40% 27% 59% 30%
Denver U. of Colorado at Denver 11,702 39% 24% 24% 19% N/A
Milwaukee U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee 4,395 41% 15% 27% 69% N/A
Las Vegas U. of Nevada at Las Vegas 21,975 41% 32% 36% 53% N/A
Nashville Tennessee State U. 7,132 41% N/A N/A 99% 12%
San Jose San Jose State U. 24,390 42% 25% 36% 46% 39%
Houston U. of Houston 27,572 43% 40% 39% 50% 24%
St. Louis U. of Missouri at St. Louis 12,432 43% 33% N/A 10% N/A
San Francisco San Francisco State U. 25,134 44% 23% 38% 49% 37%

These self-reported numbers (courtesy of NCES) come with many caveats. They're six year graduation rates, and some students graduate in more than six years. They don't include students who move elsewhere, and some universities -- those in California stand out -- produce more transfers than graduates. They only include students who start full-time (the "% of Students in Grade Rate" column shows those students as a percentage of all students).

But even taking all of those things into account, it's clear that a great many students are entering urban universities and never completing a degree. There's a good chance that including part-timers would make graduation rates worse. And in most cases, the numbers for black and Latino students are particularly bad. Among the 20 universities on this list -- institutions that collectively enroll over 300,000 undergraduates -- the median six-year graduation rate for black students is 25 percent. No amount of extensions, adjustments or allowances would raise that number to a level that anyone should accept as good enough. (Increasing the timeline from six to eight years at Wayne State University, for example, boosts the black graduation rate from 10 percent to 20 percent -- twice as good, but still very bad.) One constantly hears policymakers lament the fact that barely half of minority students graduate from high school on time. For these universities, that would be a huge improvement.

These catastrophic failure rates are certainly not all the universities' fault. The latest UDC schedule of classes shows the fallout of the K–12 district's historical failure. The math department is offering:

  • 16 sections of "Basic Mathematics"
  • 13 sections of "Introductory Algebra"
  • 9 sections of "General College Math I"
  • 7 sections of "General College Math II"
  • 4 sections of "Intermediate Algebra"
  • 2 sections each of "Pre Calc with Trig I," "Pre Calc with Trig II," "Calculus I," "Calculus II," and "Calculus III"
  • 1 section each of "Differential Equations," "Number Theory," "Linear Algebra," "Advanced Calculus," etc.

Any number of high schools in the DC metropolitan area offer proportionately more advanced math. Overall, nearly 70 percent of incoming UDC freshmen need some remediation. Like too many colleges and universities, UDC is often forced to be an essentially secondary -- not postsecondary -- institution.

UDC's budget was also slashed during the city's financial restructuring in the mid-1990s. Most UDC students juggle work and family while trying to pay for college with limited means. All commute; there are no dorms. The small campus of nameless, numbered concrete buildings, rendered in the brutalist style, has been allowed to crumble.

But UDC is also an institution that is often described as "poorly run" and worse. The average age of the unionized, highly-tenured faculty is 68. Despite having a relatively small student body with concentrated academic needs, UDC offers a range of degree programs that grant very few degrees. More than 30 years after being created through the forced marriage of a local teachers college, city college, and technical institute, old institutional divisions remain.

To varying degrees, these problems are mirrored in urban universities nationwide -- academically unprepared students, insufficient funding, and the worst of city politics and higher education administration put together in one tangled mass of dysfunction. There are exceptions, of course, institutions and departments doing great things despite many challenges. But on the whole, the odds are stacked against many city college students, and the outcome data reflect the end result.

Beyond specific problems of preparation, funding, administration and teaching, the terrible success rates at urban universities reflect the fundamental difference in the way K–12 and college students are viewed. The underlying premise of any conversation about elementary and secondary education is that the schools bear significant responsibility for student success. But the moment a student walks off their high school graduation stage, they are magically transformed in the public eye into a fully actualized adult who bears 100 percent of the burden for any and all educational outcomes that subsequently occur -- or don't occur. As Peter Smith, founding president of California State University-Monterey, said of high college drop-out rates in his book The Quiet Crisis: How Higher Education is Failing America:

"In colleges and universities, the institution is not at fault; I, as president, am blameless. The traditional model of college tells us that it is the students who have failed, not the college. They bear the shame."

No wonder political leaders aren't throwing their weight and money behind improving urban universities. If the onus of success or failure falls entirely on the students, what's the point?

So we find ourselves, in a time when more students want and need college than ever before, herding large numbers of academically at-risk, disproportionately low-income students into urban universities built on a traditional model that doesn't serve them well. They are the very same students whom we're trying so hard to get through high school -- only to turn our attention away from them just a few months or even weeks before they falter in college. All because of the strange and dangerous idea that educational institutions bear little responsibility for how much their students learn or whether those students earn degrees. Until that changes, the quiet crisis of urban higher education will continue, and much of the best work of K–12 reformers will come to naught.


Kevin Carey is the research and policy manager of Education Sector. He blogs about K–12 and higher education policy issues at The Quick and the Ed. An archive of his Outside the Circle columns may be found here.


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