BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Lehigh University did a good job wooing Nezy Smith here. A Lehigh admissions officer met the African-American honor-roll student at her high school in Lebanon, Pa., then kept in touch for a year, urging her to visit the campus and helping her to fill out complex financial-aid forms.
Smith arrived at Lehigh in 2008, elated to experience college life and dismissing cautions by some upperclassmen that as a minority student she might sometimes feel unwelcome on the 146-year-old campus and on its social scene, including parties in the hilltop fraternity houses.
A few months into her freshman year, though, Smith and a group of black friends waited in vain outside a frat house while a member waved others in. And at times she felt uneasy being the only black face in the classroom, despite doing well in her business and German courses.
By the next winter, she was gone, joining the roughly 25 percent to 40 percent of black and Hispanic students who start at Lehigh but don't finish, depending on the year. The institution that had worked so hard to attract Smith hadn't done such a good job of keeping her, spotlighting a problem seen at colleges nationwide.
A lot of attention has been given to the push to make higher education more diverse, with colleges trumpeting their enrollment of underrepresented students. But black and Latino students are, on average, far less likely to graduate in six years than their white and Asian peers.
Some colleges, though, defy the trend, graduating all students at the same rates, according to a 2010 report by the Washington-based nonprofit Education Trust. Using these schools as an example, the Education Trust concludes that a graduation gap is not inevitable.
When a student drops out of high school, the tendency has long been to blame the school. But when a student leaves college, people typically blame the individual. Many experts now argue, though, that even at the post-secondary level, institutions must shoulder responsibility for their completion rates — and that their practices matter a lot.
Another way to look at it: While Lehigh lost Nezy Smith, might a different institution — such as the University of Notre Dame — have kept her?
Like Nezy Smith, Dominique Higgins distinguished herself in high school — in her case, Bonita High south of Los Angeles, where she served in student government, tutored others and was a shot-putter.
Last March, before its official letters went out, Higgins was among a group of minority students invited to one of three all-expenses-paid "diversity weekends" at Notre Dame's South Bend, Ind., campus. They arrived on a Thursday evening and assembled in La Fortuna Student Center, where their host went over the agenda for the weekend before casually announcing, "Oh, by the way, you've all been accepted." After two seconds of stunned silence — Was it a joke? — the room erupted into cheers.
The extraordinary attention didn't end when Higgins arrived last August. There was an event at the campus restaurant, where she was invited to a lunch with several political science professors speaking that night on the future of the Latino vote. Not long after Higgins got settled, a man in a yellow vest came over to ask how she was keeping up with her studies amid all the distractions of campus life like pep rallies and football games.
"I'm working on it," she promised, bobbing her head.
"That's good," said Arnel Bulaoro, who monitors the academic performance of minority students on campus. He's keeping files on 421 this year.
Notre Dame is larger than Lehigh, 8,400 students to 4,700, but both are selective private institutions with high price tags and solid student test scores. (In Higgins' class at Notre Dame, incoming students in the 25th to 75th percentile on the reading and math sections of the SAT scored between 1315 and 1480, while students in the same percentile range at Lehigh scored between 1270 and 1410.)
The two institutions also have similar combined black and Hispanic enrollments — 11 percent for the latest class at Lehigh, and 14 percent at Notre Dame.
But where Lehigh reported a 10-point gap in graduation rates between whites and their black and Hispanic peers in 2008, Notre Dame's black and Hispanic undergraduates completed their degrees at a rate only 1.1 percentage points lower than the overall rate of 95.8 percent, according to the Education Trust.
At Notre Dame, Bulaoro is one of two assistant directors of Multicultural Student Programs and Services. The other concentrates on the social side of things. The office also has a director, services coordinator, program intern, graduate student assistant and three undergraduate interns.
"We can't just make speeches," said Don Pope Davis, Notre Dame's vice president and associate provost, who has led a campaign to recruit more minority faculty members.
Feeling snubbed at frat parties wasn't the worst part for Nezy Smith. She'd watch white students drive around campus in their cars and see the slender girls trek up and down the hill on which the campus sits. Her family couldn't afford for her to have a car. And she had curves.
"That's when color came into play. I couldn't accept the fact that I was black,"
Smith said, recalling how this grew into a full-blown identity crisis by the start of her sophomore year. "I started to not like myself because I wanted to be like other students."
Lehigh does pay special attention to minority students, but its Office of Multicultural Affairs is much smaller than Notre Dame's and doesn't have the luxury of branching out into academic programming or formal mentoring.
Smith did try one outlet for black women, the "Circle of Sisters" meetings held every other Friday. But while she vented her frustrations there to a handful of staff members, she never got the one-on-one pep talks perfected by an African-American faculty member, Kashi Johnson, who often attends the meetings.
Johnson, a native New Yorker, graduated from Lehigh in 1994 after "floundering" to the point of crisis. Starting in the university's marquee engineering program, Johnson barely survived the first weed-out classes such as Calc 21 and Chem 21, which left her with a 1.1 grade-point average. Like Nezy Smith, she also felt isolated from the larger Lehigh community.
Johnson's alienation lingered for more than a year until her mother studied her transcripts and suggested she go into theater.
At first incredulous, Johnson ultimately followed her mother's suggestion and, after graduation, did everything from "King Lear" to hip hop as a professional actress and director before returning to her alma mater in 1999 to teach theater.
Once she decided to study theater, she said, "I went from feeling like I didn't belong certain places to knowing I belonged everywhere."
When Johnson encounters minority students thinking of dropping out, she sizes them up and gives them one of two recycled speeches about surviving life on campus. The first is "you do your time." The second is more upbeat — what she calls her "Lehigh-is-what-you-make-it" talk.
That basic tenet of self-help — that, in the end, you're responsible for your own happiness — has worked for many minority students here. Greg Martin, a Coast Guard kid who grew up in New York, Michigan and Connecticut, also wondered at first whether he'd made the right choice. He hung around mostly with other black students until he was named a residential adviser in a largely white dorm. "It opened my horizons," said Martin, who became active in step-dancing and other campus events and will graduate this spring with a double major in political science and Africana studies.
But "a lot of students have left," he acknowledged.
One was Nezy Smith, who took nearly a year off to "recover" before officially withdrawing from Lehigh in November 2009. This past fall she enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, where 17 percent of the student body is black. "There are a lot of people who look like me," she said.
It's tough to imagine Dominique Higgins not getting her diploma after four years at Notre Dame.
Even before she arrived, the multicultural office suggested she join Building Bridges, a program that connects incoming minority students to faculty and peers with similar interests and invites them to many different networking opportunities. In her first semester, Higgins had gone to dinner twice at the home of her mentor, a business professor.
Building Bridges is inspired in part by research suggesting that social and academic success in college is intertwined. The multicultural office also offers other academic programs, sets students up with research opportunities and internships, reaches out to parents and — as at Lehigh — works with social groups.
Although life isn't perfect at Notre Dame, many students report that racial tensions are minimal there and say they appreciate the efforts by its administration to tackle diversity issues.
An emphasis on dormitory life, where students of all races are mixed, also helps to guard against an unhealthy degree of self-segregation.
For Higgins, the biggest issue on campus so far has been the allure of socializing in the common room of her dorm. At Bulaoro's urging, she finally devised a firm schedule to ensure she doesn't neglect the reading for her sociology and marketing classes.
Her solution: no letting loose after classes end on Fridays. That time would be dedicated to studying. She'd make herself earn the right to join hall-mates outside her room, sprawled over those inviting sofas and chairs.
Lehigh administrators are well aware of the Education Trust's graduation-gap study. But Dean of Students Sharon Basso said the statistics are deceptive because Lehigh's small minority population means that a few departures can skew the numbers.
Still, Lehigh formed a committee on minority retention last year, and this fall it announced the creation of a new position, vice provost for academic diversity. "We've tried to redouble our efforts," said John Seaton, the vice president of student affairs.
Kashi Johnson, the theater professor and unofficial mentor, wants to see the numbers improve before she buys into such talk. "They always seem like they're taking steps," Johnson said.
Johnson sees much of herself in Fatima O'Connor, a fellow Brooklyn, N.Y., native who dreams of becoming a civil engineer. O'Connor attended a high school devoted to architecture, where she discovered a passion for math. She finished fourth in her class and entered Lehigh as a first-generation college student totally unprepared for what lay ahead. Her earlier success had been grounded in regurgitating information, she realized, which didn't cut it when trying to figure out hydraulics or thermodynamics.
When her grades started to slip, O'Connor sought out her professors after class. But it didn't help to hear the same person explain the same concept the same way she hadn't understood the first time. She partly blames herself for "not paying more attention to all the opportunities for help," such as tutoring. By last year, her junior year, O'Connor had lost her scholarship and was put on academic probation. Then she took a semester off.
That a student might struggle to master thermodynamics isn't surprising. But O'Connor wondered whether others face the sort of life-burdens she does, like having two campus jobs so she can send money to her older brother, who's caring for an infant son.
O'Connor calls this her "second junior year," and it's make-or-break time if she is to graduate from Lehigh. She meets regularly now with both Johnson and her dean.
"I want it badly," she said.
The tutoring, mentoring and late nights in the computer lab paid off in grades that got her off probation this semester and back on scholarship. O'Connor is now thinking that her training in Lehigh's best-known specialty should be a ticket to graduate school in engineering.
"To graduate with that type of degree from here," she said, "is a real statement."
(Butrymowicz writes for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.)
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