Forty years after a major milestone for African-Americans at UNC, the University’s black males are suffering from exceptionally low graduation rates.
Richard Epps, who is now deceased, became the University’s first black student body president 40 years ago today, during a time when barely 60 black students walked the campus, said Pam Campbell-Chisholm, a friend of Epps.
Epps’ success was a testament to UNC’s growing accessibility for African-Americans. But today University administrators have shifted their focus to a different concern — fostering academic success for black males while also maintaining the historic accessibility.
UNC’s four-year graduation rate is just 49.2 percent for black males, compared to a 70.8 percent graduation rate for white males, according to a 2010 study.
Taffye Clayton, who became UNC’s vice provost for diversity and multicultural affairs in February, said the University is looking for solutions.
“We have to study the research that exists and determine what are the models of success that are out there?” she said.
“What are the particular needs of our students and how do we adapt those models so that they work for us with in the context of our students? Our goal is to ensure that they are successful and we provide them every opportunity to be successful,” she said.
But Clayton said the issue clouds not just UNC, but the nation, and the University needs to look for partners around the country to work with on this problem.
“There are national foundations and others who are very interested in the success of students,” she said.
Eric Campbell, president of UNC’s chapter of the Black Student Movement, said the University is not providing impoverished students who might be from rural areas with the necessary resources to succeed.
“There’s got to be some people reaching out — helping these people get on the same track,” he said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility at Carolina.”
Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bruce Carney said the low graduation rates are a product of economic need.
“Needy students generally don’t do as well as non-needy students,” he said.
Clayton said that, in many cases, these students are compelled to work other jobs while their academic success suffers.
“For some students, it’s that they work and they shouldn’t be working. They need time to focus.”
UNC’s Carolina Covenant program aims to aid students in this situation. It allows participating students, whose family income must fall at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, to graduate debt-free.
Clayton pointed to Carolina Covenant as a potential model for improving graduation rates for black males.
Carney said the program helps alleviate a problem that fuels low graduation rates— assimilation into the larger campus community.
Not all students have the ability to fit in on their own, said N.C. Rep. Angela Bryant, D-Halifax, a former member of the UNC-system Board of Governors and friend of Epps.
She said she is concerned that the undergraduate admissions website fails to advertise UNC as a welcoming place that is interested in minorities.
“I worry about on the undergraduate level whether we have the same aggressiveness that we had in the past,” she said.
“I’m not completely clear on the direction and the commitment.”
Race isn’t the only factor that might have a bearing on the lagging graduation rates, Carney said. Males as a whole graduate at lower rates than females.
“Minority males are the most extreme case. But males — that’s half of it right there,” he said.
The four-year graduation rate for black females is 71 percent, about 22 percent higher than their male counterparts. Meanwhile, there is about a 10 percent difference between the graduation rates of white males and white females.
Moving forward, Clayton said the issue of academic success for black males needs to become a national one.
“As we look at issues of African-American challenges to the African-American community we have to look at that as a challenge to the American community,” she said.
“It is about race, but it’s also about the entire American society.”
Staff Writer Jamie Gnazzo ?contributed reporting.
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